Despite losses, sky isn't falling on Vikings, Ravens; more Snaps
Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest Tuesday's dizzying comings and goings in the NFL as free agency cranks to life...
• Here it is, only the first day of the league's new year, and already it feels all but over if you're a fan of the Minnesota Vikings or the Baltimore Ravens. Yeah, we know both teams went 10-6 and made the playoffs last season, but that was then. You saw what happened in the past 36 hours.
The Vikings and Ravens are doomed. No Percy Harvin. No Anquan Boldin. No Antoine Winfield. No Paul Kruger. No Dannell Ellerbe.
No chance. The Vikings, as some 'sky-is-falling-types' predicted on Twitter, are going to be terrible in 2013. With no one to catch the ball and no one to defend against the pass, it will be U-G-L-Y.
The Ravens? The Super Bowl champs were decimated. This must be that famed price of success they talk so much about. With Ray Lewis in retirement, and Kruger and Ellerbe gone to AFC rivals Cleveland and Miami respectively, it's an open question whether we'll even be able to recognize Baltimore's defense come the fall. And don't even get us started on the loss of Boldin, the irreplaceable star of the Ravens' glorious four-game Super Bowl run. There's clearly not life after A.B.
That wave of hyperbole aside, it's obvious that no two teams have suffered more body blows in the opening hours of the league's personnel acquisition season than Minnesota and Baltimore. But the start of free agency invariably warps our perspective in a variety of ways. It's important to remember -- and we can't stress this enough -- that it's only mid-March. It's no time to panic. There's a long way to go until September, with the rest of free agency and April's draft still to come on the roster-building front.
A lot can happen. A lot almost certainly will happen. Some of it maybe even on the positive development end of the spectrum for the Vikings and Ravens.
Overreaction to the first day of free agency is, of course, the natural order of things by now. Why only two short years ago, the Philadelphia Eagles signed everyone in sight early in free agency, while the New York Giants sat on their hands and tried to live down the outrage expressed by fans and media demanding to know why they would ever let such a valuable commodity like receiver Steve Smith sign with the rival Eagles. Yep, the same Steve Smith we haven't really heard from since.
How'd that one work out for the Eagles and Giants?
The start of free agency has morphed into Groundhog Day over the years, with only the names and the size of contracts changing. It's the same basic dynamic played out spring after spring. Some teams immediately look like big winners. Some teams immediately look like big losers. But the actual results, come the fall, tend to vary. It's the immediate part that gets us all into trouble every time.
It was a bit surprising, I suppose, to see Minnesota cut ties with the reliable Winfield, disappointing Vikings fans in the process. But was it really so shocking? Winfield is a fine slot cornerback, but he's almost 36, carried a $7.25 million cap number in 2013, and is being thrown out into an absolute glut of a veteran cornerback market. So there's a good chance Minnesota will replace him with a decent player at a more reasonable salary, and it might even be he who will return, given that Minnesota has made it known it's open to re-signing him at a lower number.
As for the Ravens, I figured if they lost Kruger, they'd probably be able to keep Ellerbe. If they lost both, I sure didn't see them still needing to practically give Boldin away to San Francisco, almost as if big brother John Harbaugh wanted to make it up to little brother Jim Harbaugh after that whole beating him in the Super Bowl thing went down.
But last time I checked, the Ravens seemed to know what they were doing on the personnel front the past dozen-plus years, so you have to factor that in somewhere. It looks like they're going in reverse, but we may be unable to see the forest for the trees at the moment. Let's give them a little time to explain and amend the perception we have today. Their track record deserves that much.
After all, Baltimore had to pay Super Bowl MVP quarterback Joe Flacco this offseason, and we knew there'd be ramifications of that monster contract. It was pick your poison. If the Ravens lost Flacco in free agency, but kept Kruger, Boldin and Ellerbe, what would fans and the media have said about Ozzie Newsome's team then? Probably something along the lines of it committing one of the biggest personnel gaffes in NFL history. And that might not have been hyperbole.
So, perspective everyone. Time has a way of working a bit in these type of dire situations. And even if you really believe the Vikings will be horrible this year, how different is that really from what we thought about them last year at this time, when no one in their right mind foresaw 10 wins and a playoff berth coming from Leslie Frazier's team? And that lack of foresight goes for Baltimore, too. I buried them in December, only to see them win it all come early February. Stuff happens. Things change. Often rapidly. Sometimes the smart thing to do is to just stand back and wait it out.
• I like Paul Kruger as a player, and contrary to what some ultra-sensitive Browns fans out there might think, I'm not knocking Cleveland signing him to a five-year, $40 million contract as soon as the free agent deals started getting done on Tuesday. It was a solid move that hurt the Ravens and helped a Browns defense that shows promise and needs more impact players.
But where I get nervous is hearing that Kruger, 27, will be the focal point of new coordinator Ray Horton's defense. I don't think he's that kind of lead-dog player, and the expectations shouldn't be that he'll necessarily match the nine sacks he got in the 2012 regular season, or the 4.5 he generated in the four-game playoff run.
I didn't do a study or anything, but it seems like the headline-name pass rushers who cash in due to free agency never really seem to pan out as planned. Mario Williams, Ray Edwards, Charles Johnson and even Julius Peppers come to mind. None of them have earned those huge paydays on the sack total front so far. But none of that will matter to Browns fans who are excited to see Kruger arrive. They see an upgrade, and a blank slate of potential about to don orange and brown.
• Miami desperately needed playmakers for quarterback Ryan Tannenhill, so Mike Wallace made sense for the Dolphins from day one. But just because Wallace got paid like a top-three receiver (a reported five years at $13 million average) doesn't mean he is one. Wallace behind only Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald when it comes to the highest-paid receivers? That's free agency for you. Someone has to get all that money. I can think of at least 10 receivers who I'd rather have, but that's not the way this game works. If you're sitting on the lucky chair when your number is called, some team will drop the cash on you.
Wallace will help the Dolphins. He can't really avoid it. But he's also inconsistent in terms of effort, and was sometimes taken out of games by defenders when the Steelers needed him most. The free agency system worked well for him, and he is the kind of young, in-his-prime player that teams should be seeking to sign in March. But Wallace is still not a week-in, week-out game-changing talent like the two receivers he's now linked with by salary. Maybe he'll become that in Miami.
• Gotta love Colts owner Jim Irsay on the first day of free agency. The Twitter-happy Irsay always sounds like he's swigging Five-Hour Energy even when he's not. Right before his club wrapped up deals with Lions offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus, Patriots guard Donald Thomas, Cardinals cornerback Greg Toler and Packers linebacker Erik Walden, Irsay had Colts fans expecting nothing short of re-signing Peyton Manning.
Via Twitter, Irsay teased: "Colts Airplanes ready, packed with suit cases full of 100 million dollars....GM of the year, Grigs and HC Chuck, have our multiple target plan!''
Most of the Colts' targets were pretty darn solid. Walden isn't a player the Packers really valued and that speaks volumes to many, but Cherilus, Toler and Thomas will be upgrades in Indy. But did any of those guys, or their agents, actually get a look at the suitcases full of 100 million dollars?
• The Bills really didn't have much choice but to cut their losses with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Especially once Buffalo general manager Buddy Nix was caught on that secretly taped phone call with Bucs general manager Mark Dominik, in essence talking about Fitzpatrick like he was a stink the team couldn't manage to get rid of.
I'd say if there's a stone-cold lock (ha!) in April's draft, it's that Buffalo either takes Geno Smith at No. 8 in the first round, or picks off Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib in the second round. So, naturally, it can't happen.
But for now, the Bills' quarterback miseries continue. They should have never brought in Rob Johnson and ticked off Doug Flutie. Nothing has worked since.
• Miami grabbed the headlines and the spotlight, but I'm not sure any club had a better first day in free agency than Tennessee, which locked up under-appreciated Bills guard Andy Levitre and San Francisco's versatile backup tight end, Delanie Walker.
Well, Levitre's not undervalued anymore. His reported five-year, $39 million deal averages almost $8 million a season, and that makes him the second-highest paid Titan behind running back Chris Johnson. Not bad jack for a grunt.
Walker was a handy player who could do a little of everything for the 49ers -- they called him "Swiss Army Knife'' in one of those witty football nicknames -- and he's going to help Tennessee fans get over the loss of free-agent tight end Jared Cook to the Rams. Walker played behind Vernon Davis with the 49ers, but he's starting material and he'll be far more consistent than the streaky Cook.
• Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be veteran cornerbacks in this free-agent market. Because there's a bunch of them, and there won't be enough chairs to go around once the music stops. With Winfield released by Minnesota, he joins the likes of Charles Woodson, Nnamdi Asomugha, DeAngelo Hall, Sean Smith, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Aqib Talib, Derek Cox, Cary Williams and that guy from New York who's reportedly about to be traded: Darrelle Revis.
That's a corner glut the likes of which the NFL hasn't seen for quite some time.
• I'm glad Tony Gonzalez is returning for another season with the Falcons. Really. Because he clearly still had his game in top form last year, and finally got to experience a taste of postseason success with Atlanta's harrowing NFC divisional-round victory over visiting Seattle. Maybe it's worth one more try at scaling the mountain.
So good for Tony. Good for the Falcons. But does this mean we'll be forced into paying attention to every step in his farewell dance once again next December and January, just like last season? No thanks. You can't do that drill twice and not have it seem phony. Brett Favre taught us all that. There's the real emotion of a moment or event, and then there's that contrived, made-for-TV emotion, and I know the difference fairly well at this point.
Seriously, doesn't anybody just retire and mean it anymore? One time and gone? (Yes, I see you over there, Ray Lewis. Don't even think about it.) The comebacks are dime a dozen these days, and that means what was once special has become so common.
Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Robert Smith get cooler all the time in my view.