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Well we knew all thought it was going to be a big week and it certainly did not disappoint. Usually, the first week of the NCAA tournament dominates the national headlines because of the thousands of bracket and office pools across the country. This week was different. Beyond the spectacle that is “March Madness” was NFL free agency, which is becoming the new March Madness, and of course there was the NBA trade deadline (my thoughts on basketball are to come in future columns this week).
NFL free agency kicked into high gear at right about 4:05 PM EST last Tuesday. You have to love how the NFL sprinkles in hypocrisy with excitement. Free agency used to begin at 12:00 AM EST, but was moved up to a 4:00 PM EST to increase interest. Of course, there is to be no tampering by teams or agents before free agency starts.
However, we saw signings an hour after the clock started, and players getting on airplanes headed to their future homes. With a salary cap (and yes Mike Felger, a real cap), the players feel pressure to take the first good deal and sign. The most sought after players seldom even visit more than one city.
Clearly a lot of this negotiation goes on with agents, players and teams prior to the official start of free agency. This is a landscape that Scott Boras would find most displeasing.
On Tuesday, I tweeted that the Patriots not making any moves on the first day of free agency was “shameful.” This tweet was sent after most of the available free agent wide receivers had been signed up and Brandon Lloyd, long linked to the Patriots, was on a flight to San Francisco. I will concede that the tweet was reactionary and sensational, but some of my Twitter posts are.
It was published by Mike Reiss of ESPNBOSTON.com on his daily blog and I took some heat from the “posters” on some of the local websites. Its fine, to quote Chris Rock, “I said it, that’s right I said it!” I stand by the comment in this way; Lloyd is now a member of the Patriots and he or a player similar, whether it be Reggie Wayne or Mike Wallace, was a must signing.
Without Lloyd, the Patriots were still capable of 11 wins and 5,000 yards of passing offense because they did it last year. But, critical observation of the Patriots playoff run showed the lack of a downfield threat. A receiver who can get open “outside the numbers” is necessary in this offense. Baltimore and New York didn’t shut down the Patriots offense, but they kept the big plays to a minimum and kept Tom Brady from dominating the game by playing up tight on the receivers knowing the Patriots had no one to get deep.
That was why Brady throwing a downfield interception to Matthew Slater of all people ALMOST cost them the AFC championship. Two weeks later, Brady’s downfield throw to Rob Gronkowski (and subsequent INT) was a contributing factor to their Super Bowl loss. The fact remains the Patriots did not have any downfield options last year.
On paper, Lloyd gives the offense a perfect design. It now has an adequate running game, a lethal short-to-intermediate passing attack that with Gronkowski is deadly in the red zone and finally a downfield attack. It’s not unlike what Josh McDaniels had in 2007 when he previously was offensive coordinator of the Patriots. Except now, McDaniels has two tight ends that are matchup problems for every team in the league.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Patriots’ patience worked as they were able to sign Lloyd to a cap friendly deal. Now Lloyd needs to deliver in a way that Ochocinco never did. The Patriots needed to upgrade this position for them to return to the Super Bowl next season, on that I will not concede.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots made some minor moves with potential upside. They chose not to go after pass rushing defensive ends John Abraham or Jeremy Mincey and instead signed Bengals defensive end Jonathan Fanene, Chargers safety Steven Gregory and Raiders defensive lineman Trevor Scott. None of the three players were in the top 75 on anyone’s free agent list, but fill holes in a defense that still needs to be rebuilt. With a lot of the big names off the board, the Patriots can still bring in some impactful players on defense.
Defensive end Mark Andersen had 10 sacks for the Patriots last season, but he might receive a big-money offer elsewhere. Andre Carter, who also yielded double digit sacks prior to being injured, can probably be signed for short money. The Patriots might also want to offer deals to outside linebacker Manny Lawson and recently released San Diego Charger’s defensive end Luis Castillo (safety LaRon Landry would have been nice too…but he signed with the Jets).
These depth moves will allow the Patriots to target their true needs in the 2012 draft: pass rushers and defensive playmakers.
It has finally ended, and Bert Breer can finally go home. The Peyton Manning-to-Denver news was announced Monday after weeks and months of speculation. This all started with Manning apparently headed to Miami with Reggie Wayne a little over a week ago. This prompted days of discussion regarding Manning in the AFC East facing Tom Brady twice a season.
Then, as quickly as Miami was in i,t they were out and Arizona and Denver emerged as contenders for Manning’s services. Arizona seemed like a logical landing spot. They are a quiet media market, play in a climate controlled dome stadium in a weaker division and have one of the best receivers on the planet in Larry Fitzgerald.
Denver was a surprise, at first, but considering John Elway’s burning desire to get out from under Tebowmania, it made perfect sense. It seemed to be a hard sell (outdoor stadium, erratic weather although not as cold as many people think and a football team that is upcoming but not great).
Tennessee joined the hunt late when aging owner Bud Adams declared to his staff to go get Peyton! Manning played college football in Tennessee, he would be able to stay in the same division and like Denver, Tennessee is an up coming team with a good young defense.
Then, out of nowhere the mystery team appeared. That team was the San Francisco 49ers, who were a special teams fumble from playing in Super Bowl 46. In the second half of the NFC Championship, Alex Smith could not complete a pass to a wide receiver. We all know at 50% of Manning can do that. The 49ers have the best defense in the NFL and are returning all their starters on defense. Their coach, Jim Harbaugh was a former quarterback and preceded Peyton in Indianapolis. They signed wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham in free agency and have the second best receiving tight end in the league in Vernon Davis. Throw in Frank Gore, one of the best running backs in the league, and it’s a slam dunk right?
Apparently not, as Manning shocked many football insiders when he decided that Denver was in fact the best location to end his career. Why did he decide this? Well, that will fill up the airwaves of the NFL Network for the next 3 months. Maybe it was his father
Joe Kennedy Archie Manning yearning for an all-Manning Super Bowl. With the depth of great quarterbacks and teams in the NFC, maybe the belief was that Denver offered the easiest road. Although I hope Manning watched Tom Brady carve up that defense not once, but twice last year.
If Manning can return to health, Tom Brady is the only quarterback in the conference in his league. Manning’s decision will play a key role in his final legacy as an NFL quarterback. Will he be able to win that second ring with another team and accomplish what even the great Joe Montana could not do? Regardless, it should be fun and let’s not forget the Patriots host the Broncos in Foxboro this season. Will that be the opening game of Sunday Night Football? Let’s hope so.
As for the rest of free agency, the most aggressive teams were teams who did not qualify for the playoffs last year. A lot of bad teams last year had extra cap space from the lockout and “uncapped year.” If you look at the signings of Mario Williams (Bills), Vincent Jackson (Buccaneers), Cortland Finnegan (Rams), Robert Meachem (Chargers) and Brandon Carr (Chiefs), they were all to teams who needed to make splashes for their fan base and to remain competitive and difficult divisions. Teams like the Patriots, Giants, Ravens, Steelers, and Packers are usually not “big splash” teams in free agency.
The NFL’s popularity is extending to all aspects of the sport. No longer is it about the season itself. Last year the NFL Draft went primetime and this year with Twitter and the expanding 24 hour coverage of the NFL Network free agency is becoming appointment viewing.