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Upgrade U – The NFL’s Top 10 Free Agent Upgrades of 2012



While lacking in the sheer numbers and madcap timeframe of 2011’s Free Agent Feeding Frenzy, the 2012 NFL free agency period has seen some player movement that could make a major impact on team’s fortunes. After the jump, we’ll see the ten teams that flipped a page and managed the biggest upgrades with their free agent acquisitions.

1) Buffalo Bills

FROM: A Collection of Mammals (DE)

TO: Mario Williams

The Bills trotted out one of the worst collections of edge pass rushers in recent memory last season. A whopping ten guys – including the (poorly) re-animated corpse of Shawne Merriman – saw snaps at DE for Buffalo in 2011, and they combined for a pitiful seven sacks and four additional hits on the QB. Adding insult to injury, the Bills’ 2009 first round washout Aaron Maybin (hilariously selected in front of Texas standout and current Redskins edge-rush terror/acclaimed GEICO commercial actor Brian Orakpo) found his way to the Jets after being released and bagged six sacks in a part-time role. By way of comparison, Jared Allen of the Vikings led all defensive ends with a combined 32 sacks/hits, and a whopping thirty-one defensive ends SINGLEHANDEDLY eclipsed the Bills’ total.

Bills’ GM Buddy Nix hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory the past few seasons, but he had no trouble doing that math and setting his sights on 2012’s best free-agent pass rusher in the Texans’ Mario Williams. The Bills flew Williams to the team facility on the opening Tuesday of free agency, and then did everything short of calling in a bomb threat to Buffalo Niagara International to keep Super Mario on the ground until a deal was done. The price was high - $50 million in guaranteed money over six seasons – but the on-the-field return could be dramatic for Buffalo. The Patriots sit atop the AFC East like gods on Olympus, and the only way to take the throne is to knock Tom Brady (who I’m guessing is a clean-cut, attractive god like Apollo, only with more sneering) from his casually-leaning-against-an-Ionic-column-eating-a-pomegranate stance down into the mud where the mortals dwell. Lining up Mario Williams next to returning DT Kyle Wilson Williams, second-year man/grizzly hybrid Marcell Dareus and fellow free agent DE Mark Anderson (late of the Pats, no less) could go a long way towards achieving that goal. Whether Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has any thunderbolts of his own to throw is a different question, although as a Harvard man he should at least be well versed in these Classical allusion-type deals.

2) Dallas Cowboys

FROM: Terence Newman (CB)

TO: Brandon Carr

There are smaller corners in the NFL. There are slower corners in the NFL. But if you’re smaller AND slower at corner, the NFL stands for Not For Long. Thus, the fate of the Cowboys’ Terence Newman was sealed. His quicks sapped by injury and age, Newman was left bleeding in the water and NFL coordinators, QBs and wideouts swarmed him like tiger fish in a River Monsters episode. (On a side note – take a moment and check out these bastards. They’re 8x the size of piranhas, they hunt in packs and could devour a Honey Badger in a trice. Hey, Internet – you want to make Africa a safer place? Forget Joseph Kony and organize a campaign to wipe out these things immediately.) had a great piece on the league’s worst-performing corners of 2011, and Newman was one of only three guys (Josh Gordy and E.J. Biggers were the other offenders) to rank in the bottom 10 on each of the article’s three metrics (Yards/Pass, Success Rate and YAC Allowed). But at least the Cowboys had SOME company in being let down by highly-paid veteran corners, right?

Player Team 2011 Cap Figure

Josh Gordy St. Louis $490,000

E.J. Biggers Tampa Bay $580,000

Terence Newman Dallas $8,000,000


In fairness to Jerry, you’d have needed a goddamn crystal ball to foresee the fact that handing a six year, $50 million contract to a 30-year old defensive free agent at the league’s most speed-oriented position wouldn’t work out for the best. But what’s done is done, and with Newman’s release all that decision really cost Dallas was $29 million, an additional $6 million in remaining dead money and a 2011 playoff berth, which Newman basically handed to the Giants on a silver platter.


But why dwell on the past? The future of the position looks much brighter in Dallas thanks to the ‘Boys landing their #1 free agent target in former Chiefs cornerback Brandon Carr. Carr’s rise over the last few seasons basically looks like an inverse of Newman’s decline, capping off his final season in KC as one of the league’s top corners. Carr allowed a meager 61.7 Passer Rating on balls thrown his way last season, which was 9th in the league among corners with at least 500 snaps. He’s got the size (6’0") and the youth (26 at the start of the 2012 season) that you covet, and uses his long arms and above-average quickness to effectively pester receivers and disrupt routes. He’s not a premier ballhawk, but he did notch a career-high four picks last year and should get some chances if the Dallas pass rush can emulate its disruptive ways from the first half of 2011 as opposed to its flaccid second-half showing. Carr and fellow addition Brodney Pool may have a smidge less aggregate talent than the Jonathan Joseph/Danieal Manning infusion that the Houston secondary received last season, but if they can have anywhere close to the impact of the Texans’ pair then the Cowboys could be well-positioned to grab the NFC East crown in 2012.

3) St. Louis Rams

FROM: The 4077th M*A*S*H Unit (CB)

TO: Cortland Finnegan

After a 7-9 campaign in 2010 behind rookie QB Sam Bradford came within a whisker of grabbing the NFC West crown, there was a sense of optimism in Rams-land that 2011 would see them take the next step in what looked to be a wide-open division. Similar optimism was likely felt by Lord Kitchener’s plucky British volunteers on the eve of the Battle of the Somme. Unfortunately for the Rams, their Week One clash with the Eagles had much in common with the Brits’ first moments after vaulting the trench-tops into the teeth of a German machine-gun fusillade – horrific failure and a massive casualty list. In a performance that would have had Gregg Williams wiping away a tear with one hand and reaching for his wallet with the other, the Eagles knocked out five Rams starters including top cornerback Ron Bartell. Bartell would be the first of an absurd SIX Rams’ corners to find the IR list that season, leaving them to man the position with guys like the aforementioned Josh Gordy and the spectacularly inept Justin King.

New Rams’ head man Jeff Fisher took a brief respite from revising his Anti-QB PsyOps program for his new triggerman Sam Bradford (Out: Suicide False Alarms! In: Firewater, Battle of Wounded Knee references!) to nab former Titans corner Cortland Finnegan. Finnegan is small but strong, fast and feisty. He’s prone to inconsistency – he was very good in 2009, absolutely horrendous in 2010 and one of the league’s top-rated corners in 2011. Even if he slips a bit from his 2011 form, though, he’ll be worlds better than what the Rams endured last season. Finnegan’s inconsistency and the Rams’ still-dire 2012 prospects lead me to slot this a bit below Carr-to-the-Cowboys on the Impact-O-Meter, but he still represents a big upgrade that also gives St. Louis more flexibility with their #6 pick in this month’s draft.

4) Kansas City Chiefs

FROM: Barry Richardson (RT)

TO: Eric Winston

While the Chiefs didn’t endure quite a Rams-level injury barrage in 2011, they definitely had their share of misfortune – not only did Jamaal Charles, Matt Cassel, Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki all land on injured reserve, but alleged right tackle Barry Richardson stayed healthy enough to sabotage Kansas City’s blocking efforts for a full 16 games. Had Richardson practiced his matador act in 1959 Seville, he might have inspired florid prose from Hemingway. In 2011 Kansas City, unfortunately, he just inspired streams of hearty Midwestern invective.

Seemingly locked into selecting a right tackle in the first round of the 2012 draft, the Chiefs caught a major break when the Houston Texans ignored Scipio’s Iron Law of Running Back Fungibility and released stud right tackle Eric Winston after dropping fat cash on one-cut system back Arian Foster. The Chiefs pounced quickly, and landed themselves an upper-tier OL with a lot of tread left on his tires whose ability to move, pull and get to the second level should pave the way for some 50-yard scampers as soon as Jamaal Charles regains his pre-knee injury form. This is a massive talent upgrade at a major position of need, and combined with the return of the Chiefs’ wounded warriors it could put them in contention in what’s likely to be the NFL’s most hotly contested division this season.

5) Chicago Bears

FROM: Roy Williams, et al. (WR)

TO: Brandon Marshall

It’s fun to make fun of Jay Cutler. Good old fashioned, red-blooded American fun. Everything from his perpetual pout and weird neck wattle to his who-gives-a-fuck attitude towards interceptions to his exit from the 2010 NFC Championship Game without a visible compound fracture inspires peals of derision which are – let’s face it – fun. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Cutler has made some amazing plays working with straight dogshit in Chicago. Former OC Mike Martz was determined to run the ’99 Rams offense with tackles that were closer to Orlando Bloom than Orlando Pace, while his WR corps was never more than a mismatched sideshow collection of one-dimensional flyers (Johnny Knox), miscast return men (Devin Hester), slow-footed possession guys (Earl Bennett) and Cheshire Cat-grinning, skillet-handed coach killers (Roy Williams). Cutler has made his share of bad decisions since his arrival in Chicago, but he’s also made more holy-shit throws than anybody not named Aaron Rodgers during the same span.

This offseason, Cutler was re-united (by trade, not free agency, but work with me) with his Denver Broncos partner in crime, Brandon Marshall (although Cutler wisely left all the actual crime up to Marshall). Marshall is always a threat to commit some sort of Twitter transgression, invite league sanction, get defenestrated by his wife in a domestic dispute or just straight catch a bullet in da club, but he’s also a threat to absolutely embarrass just about any corner that tries to stop him. When last they met, Cutler and Marshall authored two straight 100-catch seasons. They may absolutely feast on the secondaries of the Packers, Vikings and Lions, which proved themselves to be eminently feast-on-able last year. New OC Mike Tice, still smarting from the ill-advised ‘Randy Ratio’ during his time as the Vikes’ head man, is unlikely to make any public proclamations of The Marshall Plan. Make no mistake, though – Marshall will undoubtedly be the centerpiece of the Bears’ passing game. With any luck, Marshall throws down a season for the ages and takes up his rightful place as a reality TV star. What would you rather watch – Khloe and Lamar moping about life in Dallas and threatening the structural integrity of a sex swing, or Marshall and his blushing bride Michi knife-fighting in the foyer and going all Gymkata on uppity bitches in Manhattan nightspots? That’s what I thought.

6) New England Patriots

FROM: Deion Branch (WR)

TO: Brandon Lloyd

Tom Brady is a system QB. While this is normally a pejorative used to bash the Ty Detmers and Graham Harrells of the world, in Brady’s case it is high praise – rather than passively benefitting from a system, he actively creates it. His decision-making and processing speed are tops in the league, and his ability to mind-meld with his receivers allows them to exploit defenses with an option route-heavy attack that adapts itself mid-play and finds the weak spot in any coverage scheme. Its complexity is fearsome – it so befuddled Chad Ochocinco that he could barely work his way onto the field even after a full season in New England. Even when it’s clicking, though, this system has suffered a weakness in the past few seasons – the lack of a true downfield dominator to punish defenses that press, jam and flood short zones to disrupt the Pats’ short-throw intricacies. Deion Branch has been serviceable on the outside and has caught his share of deep shots, but he’s lost a step and is not one to inspire fear.

Brandon Lloyd, though – THERE’S someone to inspire fear. For his first eight years in the league, he mainly inspired fear and loathing in his own coaches and teammates – an egomaniacal malcontent who appeared to possess a vastly inflated sense of his own abilities. Then, from out of nowhere, he unleashed a 1,400 yard, 11 TD hellstorm on the league in 2010 and we realized that maybe his sense wasn’t quite as inflated as we thought. Once Tebow took the reins in Denver last season, John Fox promptly realized that Lloyd was roughly three bounced out patterns from going all Fletcher Christian up in that bitch and shipped him to St. Louis. With Sam Bradford largely constrained to dink-and-dunk passes by the Rams’ mockery of a line, Lloyd had little opportunity to flash the deep-ball acrobatics that had torched the league the year before. Now, even Designated Deep-Ball Guy has a lot to learn in the Patriots system, so there’s no guarantee that Lloyd will hit the ground running. He’s also going to be 31 when the season starts so it’s possible that he may start slowing down a bit. But if he can bring anything close to the thunder he brought to the Broncos, the rest of the AFC had best batten down the hatches.

7) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

FROM: Jeremy Zuttah (G)

TO: Carl Nicks

Like the Rams, the Buccaneers held the mantle of Plucky Up-And-Comer after missing the playoffs despite a 10-6 record in 2010. They thought they were ready for the Big Dance in 2011, but before they could climb into the limo they caught their collective dicks in the collective zippers of their collective tuxedo pants and spent the season bloodied and humiliated. It was a pretty equal-opportunity collapse, with just about every aspect of the team showing a massive loss of Pluckiness relative to last year.

After spending the 2011 Free Agent Feeding Frenzy comically overpaying to re-sign LB Quincy Black and G Davin Joseph, the Bucs have finally gone outside the family in 2012 with their biggest acquisition being former Saints guard Carl Nicks. Zuttah actually played fairly well last season, but Nicks is fairly regarded as the best guard in the game. He’s a surprisingly agile road grader in the run game and is able to throw up a wall against all comers in pass protection – even monsters like the 49ersJustin Smith. The Bucs would probably be better served to start Nicks and Zuttah and bench Joseph, but Joseph’s absurd $50 million deal likely keeps him safe for another season. Regardless, Nicks should provide the juice to ramp up the Bucs’ run game and offer strong pass protection as the new coaching staff tries to get QB Josh Freeman’s head right with ball again after a shaky 2011 campaign.

8) Seattle Seahawks

FROM: Tarvaris Jackson (QB)

TO: Matt Flynn

The 2011 Seahawks were, in many respects, a better team than the 2010 version, but this year 7-9 wasn’t going to get it done with a potent 49ers team rising up to snatch the NFC West crown. A team with some pretty solid talent at a number of positions, they decided they were being held back by the QB spot. While Tarvaris Jackson’s numbers (6.9 yards per attempt, 14-13 TD/INT ratio, 79.2 QB rating) were more pedestrian than putrid last year, they were far from elite and Jackson wasn’t judged likely to reach the upper echelon of NFL passers.

After being one of the teams frequently mentioned in The Inexplicable Ryan Tannehill Draft Stock Helium Fandango of 2012, Seattle instead decided on the free agent route and projected their hopes and dreams onto the largely blank canvas that is Matt Flynn. After an unspectacular career at LSU and having thrown a total of 49 NFL passes from 2008-2010, Flynn went absolutely buck-wild in the final game of the 2011 season as he eviscerated the Lions for 480 yards and six touchdowns. If that’s representative of the player the Seahawks are getting, then he belongs a hell of a lot higher on this list. Even if he turns out to be Matt Schaub – he of just 151 career passes as a Falcons backup before landing a big-money deal with the Texans – then Seattle will have made out very well for themselves. While Flynn won’t have the weapons he enjoyed in Green Bay, the cupboard is far from bare in Seattle. The potentially explosive Sidney Rice, sneaky-good second-year wideout Doug Baldwin, an emerging slot guy in Golden Tate and big target Mike Williams could give the Seahawks the most explosive air attack in the division. If Flynn can keep these guys fed and Marshawn Lynch keeps Tasting the Rainbow, Seattle should give the 49ers a run for their money in the NFC West.

9) New Orleans Saints

FROM: Aubrayo Franklin (DT)

TO: Brodrick Bunkley

As the NFL passing game has basically evolved into QBs playing Madden on ‘Easy’ over the last several seasons, I’ve developed the core philosophy that your run defense just isn’t all that important – unless you’re really, really bad at it. The Saints’ run defense wasn’t quite bad enough to sink them last season, but it was close, as they repeatedly failed to answer the question "Who dat gonna tackle dat running back before he get a first down?" New Orleans gave up an atrocious 5.0 yards per carry last year, and watching Jonathan Vilma and Scott Shanle repeatedly try to run around blocks is probably what caused John Goodman to jump off that bridge in Treme. While their linebackers were probably the worst offenders, the Saints also got subpar work from their DL against the run. Particularly disappointing was mammoth tackle Aubrayo Franklin, who absolutely wrecked shop as a 3-4 NT in San Francisco but couldn’t quite get it together in the Saints’ 4-3 scheme. An inability to consistently stop the run kept the Saints from really getting to tee off on opposing QBs in bounty-friendly down and distances like 3rd and 8.

The Saints nabbed an elite run-stuffer in the Broncos’ Brodrick Bunkley, who will slam the door on opposing runners like a New Orleans bouncer at…well, I guess never for a New Orleans bouncer, but like a bouncer at 2:00 AM in a city that actually has the rule of law. Bunkley was ProFootballFocus’ #1 DT against the run by a country mile in 2011, and his presence will lead to a lot more 3rd-and-longs setting up blitz calls by Gregg Williams DC to Be Named Later. Actually, at this rate the Saints’ non-suspended defenders may just be drawing up their own plays in the dirt on Sundays, but at least they’ll be doing it in a more favorable down and distance.

10) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

FROM: Preston Parker (WR)

TO: Vincent Jackson

Nowhere was the 2011 Bucs’ regression from their solid 2010 campaign more evident than in their passing numbers – Josh Freeman’s YPA dropped by nearly a full yard (7.28 to 6.52), TDs fell off (25 to 16) and interceptions went through the roof (6 to 22). Just about no one played well, and the loss of #2 wideout Arrelious Benn to a late-season knee injury meant Tampa faced starting this season with one receiver (Mike Williams) at a career crossroads and a bunch of others just hoping to HAVE careers.

Fortunately for the Josh Freeman Reclamation Project, the Bucs had enough cash left over from the Carl Nicks signing to also bestow riches on Chargers’ deep-ball impresario Vincent Jackson. It seemed like Jackson had been trying to get out of San Diego for longer than Andy Dufresne tried to get out of Shawshank, and while Tampa Bay is no Zihuatenejo it’s probably pretty similar from a climate standpoint. Nobody in the NFL throws a better deep ball than Philip Rivers, but Freeman has plenty of arm to keep VJax’s rep as a top-tier vertical threat intact. No one can seem to win the NFC South two years in a row, and if Tampa manages to make hay with their #5 overall draft choice they could take their turn at the top this season.

Those are the highlights from free agency so far – check back soon for a more detailed review of the Cowboys’ offseason to date and some coverage of every NFL fan’s mid-offseason methadone fix – the draft.