Here’s a compendium of the major NFL re-signings and additions of street free agents during February, before the official free-agent market opens. Since there weren’t many major moves, we’re simply commenting instead of comparing. We’ll compare signings using Football Relativity once the free agent market opens.
Steelers (kept NT Casey Hampton) – Hampton has long been a stalwart of the Steelers’ 3-4 defense as the nose tackle, as he has started every game he has played since his second season in 2002. At age 32, he has moved from being a penetrating player to being more of a Pat Williams-style stopper in the middle, but he still has significant value in that role. The Steelers were going to follow the trend and franchise-tag Hampton, like so many other teams did with their nose tackles, but instead they signed him to a three-year, $21 million deal with $11 million in guaranteed money. This way, Hampton gets a little more guaranteed dough, while the Steelers get Hampton at a reasonable per-year rate.
Raiders (kept PK Sebastian Janikowski) – Janikowski, the only kicker in two generations to be a first-round draft pick, signed the biggest contract ever given to a kicker. He’ll get $9 million guaranteed in a four-year deal scheduled to pay him $16 million total. That’s the same amount the Raiders gave All-Pro punter Shane Lechler last offseason. Janikowski isn’t the clear best at his position like Lechler is, but the kicker known as Sea-Bass had a career year in 2009, making 26-of-29 field goals, including a 61-yarder that’s one of the longest in league history. He has one of the strongest legs in the league and is one of a dying breed of placekickers who thrive on kickoffs as well. So he’s clearly a top-5 kicker, if not the very best in the league. While you can argue the wisdom of committing so many resources to one area of the team, the Raiders have ensured continued excellence in the kicking game. At least they’re paying for quality.
Titans (kept OLG Eugene Amano and S Donnie Nickey) – Amano was ready to become an unrestricted free agent whether or not 2010 was an uncapped year, and so the Titans were in danger of losing him. Instead, they inked him to a new five-year contract worth up to $26.5 million with $10.5 million in guaranteed money. Amano has emerged as a left guard starter over the last two seasons, and he also is able to play center, which is a key because Titans starter Kevin Mawae is a free agent who has already logged 16 seasons in the NFL. Amano’s versatility, and the paucity of starting-caliber offensive linemen who will hit the open market, made him a priority for the Titans (with good reason, according to Daniel Jeremiah of MovetheSticks.com). That’s why Amano got above-average starter money. Tennessee, which has terrific OTs David Stewart and Michael Roos locked up long term, now knows that they’ll have a good measure of continuity on the line with or without Mawae. Amano, meanwhile, gets some financial security and the chance to stay in the same city where he has played his whole career. It takes that kind of win-win to get a deal done this far before the free-agent market opens. Nickey, a key special-teams player as well as a backup safety, took a one-year deal to stay in Nashville as well.
Bengals (added WR Matt Jones and PK Dave Rayner) – Jones got a contract just above the league minimum to return to the NFL after missing the entire 2009 season due to suspension and being released by the Jaguars. Jones was largely disappointing in his time in Jacksonville, although his best season was his last one. But he can provide a big and fast option across from Chad Ochocinco, replacing what the Bengals lost when Chris Henry died. It’s a low-risk, high-reward gamble which makes sense from a football perspective. However, given the off-field problems the Bengals have had, if this blows up in their face it will cause much more scrutiny. So the Bengals are relying on Jones to behave even more than they are relying on his production. Rayner, who has kicked for five teams, looks to be the replacement for Shayne Graham, whom the Bengals don’t plan to re-sign after his playoff failings. Rayner’s no great shakes, but he’s at least worth a shot in a training-camp battle with someone.
Ravens (add WR Donte Stallworth) – Stallworth, who sat out the 2009 season under league suspension, will get his second chance in Baltimore on a one-year deal worth $900,000 and potentially $300,000 more in incentives. That’s not much to pay for a guy with speed and potential. But even before his suspension, Stallworth bounced around to four teams in four years because he never really lived up to his billing. He’s the ultimate workout warrior who hasn’t found a way to really translate his numbers onto the field. Still, Baltimore isn’t paying much to give him a chance, and the Ravens have such a dearth of offensive playmakers that gambling on Stallworth as a third or fourth receiver makes sense. It would be a mistake, though, to rely on Stallworth in a starting role. Meanwhile, from a character standpoint, Stallworth has shown maturity in making up for his mistake over the past year, and perhaps that will help him resurrect a career that is disappointing at this point.
Jaguars (kept WR Troy Williamson and TE Ernest Wilford) – Williamson was a bust as a first-round pick in Minnesota, but he’s shown a bit of promise in Jacksonville despite injuries. The Jags chose to bring Williamson back as a speedy complement to Mike Sims-Walker and Mike Thomas. By signing Williamson now, the Jaguars also get him at less money than the restricted free agent tender, while Williamson gets a $100,000 signing bonus he wouldn’t have gotten by signing the tender. So that’s a small win-win for both sides for a guy who could be a backup but not much more. Wilford, a former wide receiver, played OK in his move to tight end last year, and he took a one-year contract at the veteran minimum to remain in Jacksonville again. He’s played five of his six career seasons in Jax.
Falcons (kept WR Brian Finneran) – Finneran has been around forever, and he’s been in Atlanta since 2000. He’s a special-teamer and possession receiver, and while he’s not a big part of the offense, he’s a nice safety net for Matt Ryan and the Dirty Birds. So keeping him makes sense, especially at a team-friendly price.
Panthers (add DT Ed Johnson) – Johnson started 20 games over the past three seasons in Indianapolis after joining the Colts as an undrafted free agent, but he was also cut twice for repeated off-the-field transgressions. He gets another chance in Carolina now with Ron Meeks, his former Colts defensive coordinator who’s now in Charlotte. Given how many injuries the Panthers sustained at defensive tackle last year (Maake Kemeoatu, Corvey Ivy, Louis Leonard), you can understand them looking under every possible rock for help, but Johnson’s off-the-field history doesn’t match the Panthers’ normal m.o. You have to wonder if Johnson signed knowing he’s on an incredibly short leash.
Vikings (kept WR Greg Lewis) – Lewis isn’t more than a fourth receiver, but he can make the occasional play – as he did on the final play of Minnesota’s miraculous win over San Francisco this year. The Vikings keep him around as a nice insurance policy who knows the Brad Childress/Andy Reid style of offense well.
Patriots (add WR David Patten) – Patten didn’t play last year, but his history with the Patriots and New England’s lack of depth at wideout makes him worth a look as a fourth receiver. We’ll see through the offseason whether Patten still has the ability to contribute at age 35.
Seahawks (add LB Ricky Foley and LS Pat McDonald) – Foley, who played collegiately in Canada, didn’t hook on in his first NFL shot in 2006, but the four-year CFL vet had 12 sacks for the B.C. Lions last year and is worth a look. The Hawks hope he can become a situational pass rusher like Canadian import Cameron Wake was for the Dolphins in ’09. Seattle also added long snapper Pat McDonald from the CFL.
Steelers (add CB David Pittman and LB Renauld Williams) – Pittman, who hasn’t played in the NFL in two years, was a third-round pick by the Ravens in 2006. The Steelers will try to see if his draftable talent still exists. Williams played seven games for the Dolphins and 49ers from ’04 to ’06 and then became a starter for Saskatchewan in the CFL over the past two years. He’s a long shot to make the team, but the Steelers do have a knack for finding linebackers who contribute in all sorts of strange places.
Jets (add PK Nick Folk) – Folk showed great promise in Dallas in his first two seasons, but his 2009 season was marked by inconsistency, and he was finally released by the team. Still, he has a strong leg and some experience, which is a virtue. The Jets face free agency with Jay Feely, and so adding Folk is a nice insurance policy at this point in the offseason. They could do worse than entering the 2010 season with Folk as their placekicker.
Chiefs (kept RB Kolby Smith and QB Matt Gutierrez) – Both Smith and Gutierrez are backups whom the Chiefs re-signed as potential restricted free agents, most likely at rates below the usual tender amounts.
Redskins (add PK Justin Medlock) – The Redskins, who cut Shaun Suisham midway through the ’09 season, are taking a look at Medlock, a former Chiefs draft choice who lasted just one regular-season game with the Chiefs in ’07. Medlock went to Canada in ’09 and thrived with Toronto, leading to another shot with the Redskins. Graham Gano (a UFL import) did a decent job with the ‘Skins at the end of the ’09 season, but Medlock provides competition that should allow Washington to end up with a young kicker with upside.