FREE AGENCY HIGHLIGHTS

It now feels like the free agency part of pre-season has settled down, so it seems like a good time to have a quick look back at some of the more interesting signings and trades that took place during one of the busiest and most entertaining free agency periods in recent years.

Big Signings

There were plenty of big moves made over the last month or two, the following are just a handful of the players I think will make the biggest instant impact on their respective new teams.

In this year’s free agency the one player who was always going to attract the most attention from teams and the media alike was Ndamukong Suh.  Widely regarded the best defensive tackle in the league, Suh departed the Detroit Lions and signed a huge contract with the Miami Dolphins.  The deal immediately upgrades the Dolphins’ defense and shows a focus on disrupting offenses as early as possible; most notably the offense of new Super Bowl champions and divisional rivals, the Tom Brady-lead New England Patriots.

Another big headline deal was made when the New York Jets brought back former cornerback Darrelle Revis.  Like the Suh signing, this is another AFC East team targeting the Patriots by improving their defense.  Revis has been one of the premier cornerbacks in the NFL for a long time and returns to the Jets having just won a championship with the Patriots.  The Jets are aiming to improve quickly and Revis’ arrival is a signal of that intent.

The Philadelphia Eagles pulled off a real coup in landing running back DeMarco Murray.  Having traded LeSean McCoy away to the Buffalo Bills, replacing him with Murray works brilliantly considering his talent and the fact he comes from one of the Eagles massive rivals, the Dallas Cowboys.  With parts of Dallas undoubtedly left a little fed up at the sight of this deal, the Eagles will hope Murray’s productivity doesn’t slow down on last year.

One of the top offensive linemen in free agency was Mike Iupati.  The former San Francisco 49er stayed in the NFC West by signing with the Arizona Cardinals, a team who have a defense ready for a championship run but need a little refining on offense.  With the addition of Iupati at guard, Arizona has a player capable of helping them move the ball more effectively.

The 49ers penned former Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith to help a poor passing game.  Last year was a disappointing one for the 49ers mainly because of a struggling air attack and they have decided against keeping receiver Michael Crabtree, who has signed for the Oakland Raiders.  Smith certainly appears to be a much stronger deep threat and could become a primary weapon for the San Francisco offense.

Busy Teams

Of course during this time of the year all teams in the NFL are busy, but there are a few teams who have used free agency to make more big moves and spend more money than others so they can rebuild where they need to in order to move their franchise up a level.

Buffalo Bills – I stated in my last blog entry that I have liked how the Bills have been building the team in recent years and this pre-season they have made a strong statement by spending a lot of money on some high-profile players.  Along with the trade for LeSean McCoy and re-signing defensive end Jerry Hughes to a big contract, Buffalo have brought in receiver Percy Harvin and tight end Charles Clay to try to bring the offense up to the same level as the defense and make a championship push.

Indianapolis Colts – The Colts now seem primed for an attempt at a Super Bowl appearance.  Not that they were far away last season, reaching the AFC Championship game but losing to the Patriots.  That game showed there were holes that still needed filling, one of which they have filled at running back by signing Frank Gore who potentially could compliment Andrew Luck’s passing game excellently.  Multiple pro bowl selected wide receiver Andre Johnson also comes in to help the offense and to be a big target for Luck, although his production has dipped a bit over the last couple of years so the Colts will need to work at getting the best out of him.  Bringing in Trent Cole at linebacker could prove a smart way for Indianapolis to improve their defense in the middle of the field.

Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles have been one of the most talked about teams during free agency.  The aim for next season will be challenging the Cowboys in the NFC East and signing the Cowboys former star running back DeMarco Murray is a good start, they also picked up Ryan Matthews as a back up runner.  Head coach Chip Kelly has shown a lot of faith in former Seattle Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell by giving him a large (perhaps too large) contract; Maxwell will have to step up and show he’s worth it.  Kelly has been similarly bold with his trades; receiving linebacker Kiko Alonso from the Bills for LeSean McCoy and writing more headlines by swapping quarterbacks with the St. Louis Rams, getting in Sam Bradford in favour of Nick Foles.  These bold moves reflect Kelly’s bold and exciting systems of play and the new players will be expected to adapt accordingly.

Jacksonville Jaguars – Unlike teams who are building towards playoff appearances, the Jacksonville Jaguars are simply trying to build a team capable of earning a winning record over a season.  They added some good players to their roster in this free agency, including tight end Julius Thomas who will improve the offense and look to be a huge target for second-year quarterback Blake Bortles in 2015.  Another big signing was defensive tackle Jared Odrick, the former Dolphin is a talented defender and good enough to become a leader from the front in the Jacksonville defense.  Signing Brandon Pierce at running back adds another weapon to a Jaguars team looking for their best season in a while.

New Orleans Saints – The Saints have decided to rebuild in a big way.  Starting names on offense like Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills and Pierre Thomas have all gone as the Saints try to improve on a bad season in a bad division last year.  C.J. Spiller comes in to pair with Mark Ingram at running back, which could spell a different approach of more running on the Saints offense.  They have also made some strong signings on defense; linebacker Dannell Ellerbe arrives from Miami as part of the trade for Kenny Stills and cornerback Brandon Browner has been signed after he was cut by the Patriots.  The players they have brought in are good, they may need more to challenge in their division.

Other Notable Signings

There were many signings during free agency to go along with the big ones as mentioned earlier.  I may revisit others in the future but for now the following are deals I found personally interesting.

The Kansas City Chiefs new wide receiver Jeremy Maclin could prove a quality addition and become quarterback Alex Smith’s number one target following the departure of Dwayne Bowe to the Cleveland Browns.  The Chiefs recorded the incredible statistic in 2014 of going the whole season without a receiver catching a touchdown and Maclin will hope to be the guy who makes sure they don’t repeat that in 2015.

The St. Louis Rams bolstered their defensive line by signing defensive tackle Nick Fairley.  Fairley spent the first four years of his career with the Detroit Lions alongside Ndamukong Suh; he is a skilled player and this move gives him the opportunity to establish himself as the main man in the middle of the line whilst playing in a strong Rams defense.

Cornerback Antonio Cromartie has left the Arizona Cardinals to re-join the New York Jets and play under new head coach Todd Bowles, who was his defensive coordinator in Arizona.  It is also a reunion with Darrelle Revis as the Jets look to use the duo to revive their secondary.  With these new additions playing under Bowles the potential is there for a better defense next season for the Jets.

Shane Vereen has signed to be the new running back for the New York Giants.  He produced good number playing for the New England Patriots and will hope to perform well for the Giants, who have already hinted that Vereen will have a big role to play in their offense.  They will try to use him in balance with a good pass game and get the team challenging for the division again in the NFC East.

The Tennessee Titans have brought in linebacker Brian Orakpo to play a key role in a defense that needs improving.  Having re-signed outside linebacker Derrick Morgan, the Titans will line former Washington Redskins playmaker Orakpo up on the other side in an attempt to create a fierce pass rush.  Orakpo has had injury problems in the last three years but if they get the best out of him the Titans have a strong player.

One veteran still playing in 2015 will be defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.  The two-time Super Bowl champion has left the Patriots after eleven years to sign with the Houston Texans.  He’s by no means passed it and could have some real success playing in the Houston defense; the potential to see him play next to J.J. Watt and 2014 number one draft pick Jadeveon Clowney is an appealing thought, unless you’re on the opposing offense.

Another veteran moving is ex-Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams as he has joined the Pittsburgh Steelers.  I have always enjoyed watching Williams run, at times I’ve felt he has been a little underrated and he may prove to be a smart pick up for the Steelers.  With the chance of a suspension at the beginning of the season for star running back Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh could give Williams a lot of plays and if he stays healthy he will play a role in their season.

Big Trades

Some of the biggest stories in this free agency period have been the trades that have occurred.  The first big trade happened with the Bills and Eagles swapping Kiko Alonso and LeSean McCoy and there have been a few more good ones since, it will be intriguing to see how these deals work out and how the players perform for their respective new teams.

Jimmy Graham and 2015 fourth-round draft pick to the Seattle Seahawks/Max Unger and 2015 first-round draft pick to the New Orleans Saints – As mentioned earlier, the Saints’ decision to start rebuilding has seen some big names leave their offense and the biggest of all is tight end Jimmy Graham.  With Graham’s arrival, the Seahawks now have a really strong player in the centre of the field for quarterback Russell Wilson to aim at and improve their passing game.  Saints fans will be upset with losing Graham but in return they get centre Max Unger, another move that hints at the Saints offense leaning more towards the run in 2015 as Unger will seriously help them move the ball on the ground as well as protecting quarterback Drew Brees.

Sam Bradford, 2015 fifth-round draft pick and conditional 2016 mid-round draft pick to the Philadelphia Eagles/Nick Foles, 2015 fourth-round draft pick and 2016 second-round draft pick to the St. Louis Rams – Chip Kelly has now used the last couple of years to entirely changed around the personnel in the main skill positions on the Eagles offense.  To complete this rebuild he has traded for former number one draft pick Sam Bradford to play at quarterback.  Bradford never quite lived up to his potential with the Rams and was injured throughout 2014 so the deal is a bit of a gamble for the Philadelphia head coach.  The Rams may have got the better half of this trade by receiving Nick Foles to be their new starting quarterback.  Foles was also hurt last year but the impressive numbers he put up in 2013 show this as a worthwhile trade for the Rams to move on from Bradford after five years.

Brandon Marshall and 2015 seventh-round draft pick to the New York Jets/2015 fifth-round draft pick to the Chicago Bears – So far this pre-season the Jets have mainly been making moves on defense to build towards next season, but by acquiring wide receiver Brandon Marshall from the Bears they now have a new player to strengthen the offense.  Now a ten-year veteran, when Marshall is good he’s very good, although off-field and injury problems affected him in 2014 so the Bears have decided now is the time to let him go.  If the Jets find the right way to use Marshall and he settles into the team he could help bring success.

Haloti Ngata and 2015 seventh-round draft pick to the Detroit Lions/2015 fourth-round draft pick and 2015 fifth-round draft pick to the Baltimore Ravens – How do you replace Ndamukong Suh?  The Detroit Lions have opted to answer that question with Haloti Ngata.  The tough defensive tackle brings versatility to the Lions defensive line, opening up the options for the coaching staff.  With both Suh and Nick Fairley gone from the front line of Detroit’s defense, young defensive end Ziggy Ansah could emerge as the main threat with Ngata providing assistance alongside him.

Mike Wallace and 2015 seventh-round draft pick to the Minnesota Vikings/2015 fifth-round draft pick to the Miami Dolphins – The Vikings had been looking for a wide receiver for a long time and landing Mike Wallace could turn into a great deal for them.  The relationship between Wallace and the Dolphins broke down last year and all efforts to trade him away were stepped up once Kenny Stills arrived in Miami from the Saints.  Wallace is a quality receiver and now has the chance to start fresh in Minnesota and become a real game winner for the team.

The free agency period this year was an exciting one and there may well be some more deals confirmed as the league begins to turn its attention towards the NFL draft.