On the opening day of the league's first off-season without a salary cap in 17 years, the Bears signed three players to contracts totaling $55 million in guaranteed money. It was an eye-popping move for the normally cost-conscious franchise, which wanted to be aggressive after failing to make the playoffs the past three years and trading away its top two picks in the 2010 draft for quarterback Jay Cutler and defensive end Gaines Adams in separate deals last year.
But when the smiles and celebratory photo ops were over last Friday, one question hung in the air like smoke from a pregame fireworks show: Did Chicago really get better? The same can be asked of other teams that were active on the first weekend of free agency. The answers:
Baltimore filled a huge need at wide receiver by trading third- and fourth-round picks to Arizona for Anquan Boldin and a fifth-round pick, then signed the three-time Pro Bowler to a four-year deal that includes only $10 million in guarantees. That's great value for a 29-year-old wideout who averages 84 receptions a year. If veteran Derrick Mason re-signs, Joe Flacco will have a nice one-two punch. Mason had 73 catches in 2009; no other Baltimore wideout had more than 34.
Rather than spend wildly to compensate for a 2--30 record over the past two seasons, Detroit made smart, strategic hits. Wideout Nate Burleson (Seattle, five years, $11 million guaranteed) will complement receiver Calvin Johnson, and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (Tennessee, four years, $10 million guaranteed) will provide high energy and physical play, plus serve as an excellent mentor if, as expected, Detroit uses the second pick in the draft on a defensive tackle.
Re-signing tackle Chad Clifton (a reported three years, $7.5 million guaranteed) was important for an O-line that needs stability. Green Bay lost Aaron Kampman to Jacksonville (four years, $11 million guaranteed), but the impact will be minimal because Kampman struggled with the switch from 4--3 end to 3--4 outside linebacker.
Third-year G.M. Thomas Dimitroff prefers to build through the draft, but he will take calculated plunges in free agency. Bringing in cornerback Dunta Robinson from the Texans (six years, $25.5 million guaranteed) is just such a move. If Robinson is as productive an import as running back Michael Turner has been, the Falcons will be an even greater playoff threat.
The trade for Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie to play opposite All-Pro Darrelle Revis gives the Jets the league's best corner tandem and upgrades the NFL's top-ranked pass defense. The downside for New York was the release of 1,400-yard rusher Thomas Jones, although the Jets hope to re-sign him to a lesser contract.
With Kenny Phillips's return from knee surgery uncertain, New York landed the top available safety in Arizona's Antrel Rolle. But $15 million guaranteed on a five-year deal is steep for someone who had five interceptions over the past two years. New York must hope its pass rush returns—the Giants plummeted from sixth to 18th in sacks last season—or this could be a costly mistake.
Chicago signed three of the top available free agents at their positions—defensive end Julius Peppers (Carolina, six years, $42 million guaranteed), running back Chester Taylor (Minnesota, four years, $7 million guaranteed) and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna (San Diego, five years, $6 million guaranteed)—but failed to address its most pressing needs: O-line and safety.
San Diego cut defensive tackle Jamal Williams and running back LaDainian Tomlinson, allowed Pro Bowl special-teamer Kassim Osgood to leave as a free agent (Jacksonville, three years, $3 million guaranteed) and for now plans to replace Cromartie with Antoine Cason, who was benched as the nickel corner last season.
Kurt Warner retired, Boldin was traded, and Rolle and linebacker Karlos Dansby (Miami, five years, $22 million guaranteed) left as free agents. Arizona did trade for Jets safety Kerry Rhodes, but some contend his play doesn't match his reputation. Start of another dry spell in the desert?
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Blanket free-agency coverage from Peter King, Jim Trotter and Don Banks at SI.com/nfl
DUNCAN WILLIAMS/CAL SPORT MEDIA (BOLDIN, PEPPERS)
THE EARLY SHIFT Big names on the move include (from left) Boldin to the Ravens, Peppers to the Bears, Cromartie to the Jets and Vanden Bosch (below) to the Lions.
KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT/US PRESSWIRE (CROMARTIE)
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TOM DIPACE (VANDEN BOSCH)
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