The Weirdness that is the NFL Free Agency, and What it Looks Like in the AFC North

NFL: Chicago Bears at Pittsburgh Steelers

via USA Today

Another year, another frenzy in the meat market known as NFL Free Agency. We can always count on a few stunners, and this year has been no exception. And, so far at least, this year is no exception in the Steelers’ reluctance to wade very far into these very expensive waters.

As Kevin Colbert recently noted, more teams are following the Steelers’ model of drafting and retaining their own players, and this makes the ones who do hit free agency all the more expensive.

And “expensive” is a good way to put it. When the Steelers signed David DeCastro to a six-year, $58 million contract last year, it seemed like a lot of money. Just about exactly six months later, the Bengal’s Kevin Zeitler made DeCastro’s contract look like a bargain by signing a five-year, $60 million contract with the Browns. (For what it’s worth, Zeitler and DeCastro were Pro Football Focus‘ 7th and 9th rated guards last season, respectively.)

But this move wasn’t really the headliner in Cleveland. In a move that seems quintessentially Browns-like, they made a trade with Houston. They took Brock Osweiller off of Houston’s books and sent back a fourth-round pick. They will also get Houston’s sixth-round pick this year and their second-round pick next year.

If for no other reason, it was worth the Twitterverse response. There have been literally thousands of tweets in the six hours or so since this was announced (I’m writing on Thursday night) and I unfortunately couldn’t find one of the best early ones I saw. But this one is pretty funny:

The buzz on the street is, the Browns have no plans to keep Osweiller, although the reports vary. Basically, they are trying to shop him around, keep the picks, and make a play for Jimmy Garoppolo. Or whatever. And that if they can’t shop him, they will cut him. How have the mighty fallen from their seat. Well, I suppose Osweiller is laughing all the way to the bank. Somebody has to pay out the guaranteed money in that nice big contract he got.

The Patriots, meanwhile, have uncharacteristically spent a bunch of money. And no, they aren’t suddenly in the AFC North, but if the road to the Super Bowl really goes through them (and no reason to think otherwise at the moment) then what they do has to be of interest. The main matter of interest to me is, why the big free agency splash all of a sudden? This must hide something more sinister than just trying to win the Super Bowl another four or five times before Tom Brady gets out his walker and hobbles into the sunset.

But to return to the AFC North, let’s start with the Ravens.

So far, they have retained Mike Wallace and let Kyle Juszczyk go (to the 49ers.) I suppose they think fullbacks grow on trees, but honestly, they will be hard-pressed to find a guy with that high a consonant-to-vowel relationship. Oh yeah, and he was quite a good fullback as well.

They also let Ricky Wagner, who was a pretty competent right tackle, go. He’s signed with the Lions. Two of their bigger names last year, Steve Smith and Elvis Dumervil, are checking out free agency, with no takers as of yet. Smith surprises me a bit. He was a monster with Baltimore when healthy, and he’s a great story.

On the other hand, they didn’t let DT Brandon Williams go, but signed him to a contract almost as big as he is—5 years, $54 million. But they are letting basically their entire defensive backfield depth test free agency. Admittedly it was nothing to write home about, and their best players, CBs Jimmie Smith and Tavon Young and safeties Lardarius Webb and Eric Weddle, are under contract. In fact, Webb’s is the only contract which doesn’t extend beyond 2017.

They appear to have only signed two non-Ravens to contracts—Danny Woodhead and their only splashy signing, S Tony Jefferson from the Cardinals—4 years, $36 million.

Next up is the Bengals. They have sold the farm on the offensive line, which is rather shocking. Zeitler was going to get big money somewhere, but not from the notoriously cheap Bengals. But Andrew Whitworth has been a mainstay of their offensive line, and was PFF’s 2nd-highest rated tackle in the league.

So it is all the more strange that they re-signed Dre Kirkpatrick to a 5-year, $52.5 million contract. Or, for that matter, Brandon LaFell, a thoroughly average receiver, to a 2-year, $10 million contract. Okay, I suppose when you put it next to AB’s 4-year, $68 million contract it looks like quite a bargain. The question for both teams is, do you get what you pay for?

The Bengals don’t appear to have done anything else of note. Karlos Dansby is gone, to the Cardinals, and some even less interesting players are testing the free agency waters, with no takers so far.

I can’t think about the Browns any more tonight. My head will explode. I guess that’s what happens when you put a baseball executive in charge of your front office. It should be interesting. And there is something to be said for trying something different…

Finally, the Steelers. If you run down the free agency list until you find “Steelers” in the “2016 team” column and look to the right to see what the “2017 team” column says, there are only two possibilities so far. Either it says “Steelers” or it says UFA.

Whoops—late-breaking exception—Markus Wheaton has signed with the Bears. Best of luck to him. At least he won’t have to play with Jay Cutler. Whether Cutler got a fair shake in Chicago or not, everything one hears indicates he was a terrible teammate. Wheaton seems like a nice young man and I wish him well. Except, naturally, for when we play the Bears, sometime in 2017.

So far the Steeler re-signings include James Harrison (2 years), Landry Jones (2 years), David Johnson (2 years), Steven Johnson (1 year) and Greg Warren, (1 year.) Warren has been signing 1-year contracts since about 2007. I guess he’s used to it.

Total value of all those contracts? (Other than David Johnson, whose contract details aren’t available yet): Less than $10 million. (I’m guessing Johnson’s contract wouldn’t push it over $11 million.) For 2017 it’s about $6 million, probably around $6 and a half with Johnson’s contract. A very Steelers-like free agency so far. Let’s hope it stays that way. The odd minor signing on Day Three or so sounds just about right…

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