My. Royal covers today. Before THE madness, he covers NFL free agency’s time to shine.

The NFL March Madness

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I think Darrelle Revis changed everything.

Revis is the reason we love corners more than any other defensive position now, and he’s the reason why we keep seeing teams shell out money and draft picks trying to lock down the next Revis.

Revis became the absolute definition of a shutdown cornerback. He proved that one guy on an 11-man defense really could shut down the football field from the left/right hashmark to the sideline. We saw him call out 6’5″ dudes like Megatron (who is the best receiver we’ve seen since Rice) and actually shut them down playing one on one for every single snap. Even those of us who hated the Jets, fell in love with Revis Island.

A guy like Revis changed the way coordinators had to view their gameplans. For the Jets DC or a defensive mind like Rex Ryan, it was an invaluable luxury to walk into the film room on Monday and say, “well we don’t have to worry about Peyton throwing it to Reggie Wayne this week, maybe we stack the box and run zone everywhere else.” And he made guys like Jim Schwartz scratch their heads and say, “Well if he just jams Calvin the whole game and we can’t tell Stafford to close his eyes and throw it deep, what do we do?”

Consider the fact that while Revis was considered a top-three prospect in the 07’ Draft, he wasn’t a sure thing. After all, he played for Pitt. It’s a lot easier to look good when the toughest game on your schedule is Notre Dame instead of a high-flying offense like USC, Florida, or Ohio State had that year. But the Jets paid attention, ignored the fact that Revis skipped the Combine and fell in love with his 4.38 40-yard dash at Pitt’s pro day. They traded up to the 14th spot to get their guy and boy did it pay off.

Revis came off an ACL injury last year and made $16 mil in salary. $16 mil. Off an ACL. While he’s far from done, the fact that he’s getting cut and looking for employment in Oakland says a lot about just how ready we are to move on from Revis as he approaches age 30 and we look for the next “young” Revis in the draft or free agency.

He’s why the Jets drafted Dee Milliner last year, why the Eagles signed Nnamdi Asomugha and cut perennial Pro-Bowler Asante Samuel a few years back, why we all hold our breath when we watch Patrick Peterson every week… and he’s why Joe Haden and Richard Sherman are popping champagne bottles as they watch this year’s NFL Free Agency frenzy.

Corners are the new divas in the NFL. Why not? Revis’ 6-year $96 mil deal last year with Tampa put him on par with the league’s biggest receiver contracts (Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald are up in the 8-year, $100+ mil stratosphere). Sam Shields, corner for the Packers, just re-signed with Green Bay for almost $10 million a year. Sam Shields. Sam. Shields. He’s good, I’m not knocking the guy. But $10 mil a year?

I imagine that when Sam Shields signed his deal, Richard Sherman and Joe Haden chartered flights to Vegas, split a penthouse, and hit the craps table, HARD. Because, why not? They’re a year away from hitting a guaranteed jackpot. The NFL is reaching a point where shutdown corners can reasonably expect $15 mil/year deals if they are willing to go to the types of teams that have $60+ million in cap space (This year, Oakland and Jacksonville).

Sherman is set to make about $1.4 million in the final year of his rookie deal. He’s now eligible for an extension with the Seahawks, but unless he really, really, likes winning and the Seahawks really, really like Sherman (or cutting some of their players), I can’t imagine a scenario where both sides get to yes.

If you don’t think he can score $15 mil+ remember that the guy has 8 picks in each of his last two seasons. You simply cannot throw near him. Ask Colin Kaepernick/Michael Crabtree/Erin Andrews. In the Super Bowl, Peyton avoided Sherman like the plague. When turnovers are turning points for defense-first teams, it’s really nice to have a guy that makes you say, “There’s a 50% chance that one of our eleven players forces a turnover today.”

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Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman, and Joe Haden will be all the rage in next year’s NFL Offseason, but the lesson we learned in the importance of Darrell Revis will be in full effect in this year’s draft. Teams with mid first-round picks like the Lions, Giants, Rams, and Ravens who are badly in need of a corner or are just looking to start thinking defense-first like the Seahawks did will be taking long, hard looks at guys like Justin Gilbert (OK State) and Louchiez Purifoy (Florida).

But that’s for next year. The theme of this year’s free agency is defense, seemingly everywhere else but at cornerback. The NFL is a “copycat” league, and the Seahawks proved that if you draft well and play terrifying defense, you’re only a top-16 QB and a running back away from a Super Bowl. Russell Wilson is fantastic. I love the guy. But he won games for Seattle in 2012. In 2013, most of the time all he had to do was manage them (watch the Super Bowl again). I used to laugh at people who said, “defense wins championships.” But sometimes, they actually do. And Seattle isn’t alone in thinking that way.

Teams, Players and Storylines to watch in the 2014 NFL Free Agency scramble:

The Broncos Splash

This is what everyone is talking about and I guess I’ll get it out of the way early but I think they’re the Atlanta Falcons of last year’s free agency. Big FA splashes early on don’t translate to success. Not to mention, when you make huge moves so early in free agency, you don’t allow time for the situation to develop. They overpaid Demarcus Ware in a DE market loaded with Chris Clemons (just released), Jared Allen, and Julius Peppers. They overpaid Aqib Talib in a CB market that now includes Darrelle Revis (just released), their own Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Antonio Cromartie. I think they made themselves better, there’s no doubting that. I just don’t think it launches them to “Super Bowl Favorite” over Seattle or San Fran.

The Cleveland Browns

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Cleveland is the frontrunner for best 2014 Offseason so far. The Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner signings in the same day prove this. Joe Haden has the potential to be one those shutdown corner guys we drool over like Revis. He’s not there yet, but well on his way. If the Browns extend him before he goes full free-agency they may get a bit of a discount. Then they shut down one side of the field and Karlos Dansby locks it up in the middle. The guy has played inside linebacker (left and right) Outside linebacker (left and right) and a little time as a middle linebacker. You can put him anywhere. Last year at age 32, he may have had his best year (112 tackles). Donte Whitner is 28 and also had his best year last year at strong safety. Whitner rounds out a secondary you don’t want to mess with and I honestly can’t wait to see what this Browns defense looks like in the suddenly smash-mouth AFC East. Entering the frenzy with $45 million in cap space, there’s no reason to think the Browns are done here. There’s plenty more defense to be had. There’s a couple #2-type CBs out there to play opposite Joe Haden (Brandon Browner, Antonio Cromartie), DE help (Will Smith, Jared Allen, Chris Clemons), or even another linebacker (Brandon Spikes).

The Ever-Recurring Michael Vick Project

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Tell me you can’t see Michael Vick in a Vikings or Jets uniform? Let’s start with the obvious, Adrian Peterson runs Minnesota and he wants Vick, bad. That alone should be enough for you to get it done, Minnesota. Imagine the rushing stats for that team! As a fan it would be great. Me and my fantasy buddies could start my favorite side pool that we do literally every year: “How long until Michael Vick misses a start due to injury (Over/Under Week 9).” I always win. Why? Because I always take the under.

But being a Giants fan, one of my favorite things to do is watch across town as the Jets camp gets all flustered and excited about stuff that steals the front page of the NY Sports tabloids. That’s why I’m rooting for the less-likely scenario where Vick winds up being a Jet. It’s like a win-win-win scenario for me. Observe:

1. We sit through weeks upon weeks of Rex Ryan interviews and news conferences where he swears up and down that Geno is their guy. Meanwhile, Geno’s confidence is absolutely shattered with the Vick signing and some Ed Werder-type dude gives us daily updates at Jets training camp saying how awful Geno looks and how great Vick looks. **cut to a clip of Rex saying “Geno is the starter, but I reserve the right as coach to continually evaluate the ongoing situation” yada yada yada** Week 5, Geno throws 3 picks against the Pats and the Jets get stomped at home. Geno jogs off the field to chants of “WE WANT VICK!” Vick jerseys fly off the shelves faster than Tebow jerseys did. Week 6, Rex announces that Vick is the starter, effectively destroying any shred of self-confidence left in Geno Smith. The Jets sneak into the playoffs, lose in the first round and reality hits that they have a decimated young talent in Geno Smith and an aging starting QB that can’t stay healthy and is incapable of leading them to a championship. I enjoy the NY Daily News on the Metro North around Christmas time this December.

2. Vick starts Week 1, lights it up for the Jets. They start 5-2 before Vick gets injured and they throw in Geno Smith. Geno gets rattled, Jets miss the playoffs and reality sets in that the Jets have a decimated young talent and an aging, injury-prone starting QB who is incapable of winning a championship.
I win my fantasy side-pool. Again.

3. Vick lights it up in Minnesota as Jets fans look on in utter dismay at Geno Smith struggling through another season. I enjoy reading about it in the NY Daily News on the Metro north this Christmas in NY.

Oakland: Cap-Space City

Holy cap-space Batman! The Oakland Raiders have $65 million dollars in cap space. To put that in perspective, the Raiders could theoretically sign the four most-expensive defensive free agents on the market in 2014 and have some play money left over for filler-pieces. They don’t have to re-sign Rashad Jennings because he’s a Giant now. Tracy Porter is up for a deal, but you run the risk of paying him for loyalty and past performance. Anyways, they could literally purchase a new D-line! Let’s say … Jared Allen and BJ Raji on the left end and Will Smith and Randy Starks on the right. It won’t happen, but it is fun to think about. We also have to remember that Oakland loves over-paying overrated receivers. Eric Decker! You’re perfect! Nevermind your quarterback situation, Oakland. You’ll draft Bridgewater too high and ruin any chances of him developing into a good QB.

Every non-Oakland fan: HAHA! It’s funny because it’s true.

Oakland fans: ** Heads shaking slowly in sadness**

Jacksonville Jaguars: $59 million in cap space

See above, but add a little more competence

“What’s going on in New Orleans…? Uh-Oh”

That’s what every team in the NFC South just said when the Saints signed Jairus Byrd to a six-year deal. The Panthers are in salary-cap hell, the Bucs are going through an identity crisis (new coach, cutting Revis), and the Saints just pulled a fast one on the Falcons. If you don’t know the backstory, here it is:

I live in Savannah, so pretty much everyone who watches pro sports is a Falcons’ fan. Local sports talk radio around here was abuzz last week when a little bird overheard a front office conversation where the Falcons were going after Jairus Byrd, hard. Rumor was the Falcons were willing to pay out for the guy after the he turned down a really good offer from Buffalo. Atlanta fans were calling in talking about how great it was like it was already a done deal.

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Not so fast. Saints GM Mickey Loomis saw what was happening and stepped in immediately. They cleared some space by tagging Jimmy Graham and cutting Lance Moore and cutting or trading Darren Sproles and made sure that the Falcons didn’t get the best safety on this year’s market. Brilliant move.

As long as they find a way to keep Jimmy Graham from getting too pissed off about this whole thing. As all young athletes seem to do now, Jimmy took to Twitter to express his disbelief at the Moore/Sproles cuts and his own contract situation
http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/eye-on-football/24472299/jimmy-graham-sends-out-tweet-bashing-saints-offseason

I like Lance Moore and Darren Sproles but in no way do I think they are essential to an offense that has Brees, a solid O-line, Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham. Sign or draft another speedy running back who can catch the ball out of the backfield in the third round. The Saints do that kind of crap all the time. The fans will get over it. The Saints need to get better at defense. Jairus Byrd is a great start.

Now, Keeping Jimmy happy is a more complicated situation. Mark’s many Fillerbuster Insiders tell me that Jimmy Graham is a pretty good dude and a holdout is no foregone conclusion, but I think he’ll do it just to send a message, at least. I imagine them not working out a long-term contract but at least settling on re-tagging him as a wide receiver in the meantime. To me, that’s meeting halfway. For now, the Saints have done a terrific job at going from a cap casualty team to a real player in free agency.

Stagnation in the East (outside of Philly)

Meanwhile, in the NFC East, the Giants will struggle to keep the pieces they already have and they need a lot of help. Jon Beason (UPDATE: just re-signed), Andre Brown, and Justin Tuck will be the G-Men’s top priorities in that order as they let much-maligned receiver Hakeem Nicks look for greener pastures. They’ve shown interest in Jacoby Jones and getting Antonio Cromartie to fill one of like, 3 giant voids at cornerback would be nice, but when you’re staring at only $19 million in cap space after cutting C David Baas and convincing Chris Snee to take a pay cut, you’ve got to pick your battles.

The Redskins would do themselves a big favor if they could actually come to terms with Brian Orakpo instead of just tagging him. He’s still a dominant OLB, but I doubt he’ll command a contract of $11 million a year. But much like the Giants the Redskins have a lot of holes that need to be filled. They need another receiver, at least two O-linemen, another pass rusher, and some kind of help in the secondary. Aqib Talib would have been a huge pickup there, but not for the money he got in Denver.

The Cowboys decided it was good business to cut the only guy not-named Jason Witten who has stuck through all the mediocrity with incredible class and dignity. They say they’re still working on keeping Demarcus Ware but with Denver coming at him as hard as they are, I think he goes to a winning program for a fresh start. The toughest part about the Cowboys’ free agency is it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly is wrong with them. They just revamped their secondary two years ago, Sean Lee anchors a pretty good linebacking corps, and they just cut their best D-Line guy so the interest clearly isn’t in boosting that. Romo is locked in, their receivers are sick, Jason Witten is still Jason Witten, about 25 NFL teams would love to have Demarco Murray as their RB1. Maybe they’re looking at O-line, but as per usual, Dallas is a mystery no one can solve. Except for Jerry Jones. He’s all over it.

Philly has $29 million in cap space, no questions at QB, good receivers, good running back, a decent O-line, and a defense that finished last in opposing pass yards last year. I think we know what they’re targeting in free agency. I can see DRC in an Eagles uniform, Asante Samuel knows the system, Antonio Cromartie maybe… they’re going to get someone to play DB. They have to.

“You’re gonna have to pay me… it’s just a matter of when”

Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton

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These guys can do it all, and it’s time to pay the piper. Colin Kaepernick is insanely underpaid. On top of his playoff poise and everything else he does, the Niners call design-runs for him; which basically put him at constant risk of an injury that could cut his potential contract value in half. You never, ever want to pay a guy for what he’s done in the past, but in this case you just might have to.

Kaepernick’s camp recently said that in contract negotiations for some kind of extension they would be looking for $18 million per. Talking heads lost their minds. “There’s no way he’s getting that!” “He’s crazy!” “Oh, that’s just their starting point,” “He knows the Niners can’t afford that” blah blah blahbitty blah. Really? Why not?

 

Jason La Canfora wrote a great piece for CBS Sports where he outlined why Kaepernick’s $18 million/year figure is actually too low. For him, a more reasonable starting point is $20 mil. Rather than plagiarizing the whole thing, just read it if you’re interested because it’s really good stuff
http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/writer/jason-la-canfora/24469225/kaepernick-will-get-his-20m-per-deal-whether-niners-pay-up-now-or-later

Let’s just make it simple: Who would you rather have as your quarterback: Joe Flacco or Colin Kaepernick? … I thought so.

 

As for Cam Newton, he is being even nicer than Kaepernick about the whole contract extension thing. He knows the Panthers are salary cap hell, and he’s taking the whole, “I’m gonna sit back and let my agents figure it out, it will all work out in the end” approach to the contract questions. That, while admirable, is unrealistic.

 

The Panthers are in salary cap hell. They’re [considering] letting some really good players go. Steve Smith is rumored to being cut or traded as his jersey was pulled from the Panthers’ NFL Shop. Tedd Ginn is a free agent, along with four defensive backs (Munnerlyn, Mikell, Mitchell, and Florence). They had to pay Greg Hardy and they still haven’t gotten him a real, long-term deal.

 

But quietly looming over all of this is the knowledge that Cam Newton needs to get re-signed at some point. And while you may say that a guy like Kaepernick deservedly should demand more money than Cam Newton, remember Cam’s rookie season, how poorly he was treated and hung out to dry in front of the media in his sophomore season, and that last year he led the Panthers to their first playoff appearance since the Jake Delhomme era.

 

If I’m his agent I know the average pay of a top-ten QB is $17.4 million. If Cam does this year what he did last year, I’m getting him that kind of money. The kid is making just above $7 million this year and he’s 24 years old. So, he’s a little happier than Kaepernick probably is right now. But he’s got franchise QB written all over him. Public opinion and fan support are definitely on his side. Maybe I don’t get it this year, I tell him to play nice, don’t even hint at a holdout, but make it very clear to the Panthers that they’re not exercising a fifth-year option on my client.

 

Next year: Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, and RGIII will be eligible for extensions. Imagine the chaos of the Adam Schefter Twitter Feed.

 

The real March Madness starts in about a week. But as for right now, the March Madness is in the NFL.

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