It's safe to say teams felt a lot more comfortable throwing the big bucks around than they did at this time last year. After a news-filled legal tampering period from mid-Saturday through mid-Tuesday, the 4 PM ET opening of the NFL New Year and free agency came at us hot and heavy with dozens of signings. The salary-cap increase of $10 million from 2013 to 2014 obviously had much to do with it. Offensive tackles and defensive backs were the big winners on Day 1. A few notable veterans also hit the open market after being handed their walking papers. Let's dive in further and take a look at what Tuesday threw at us.
Offensive Tackles Get $96.5M in Guaranteed Money
As mentioned above, five offensive tackles were some of the biggest winners of the opening day of free agency. Branden Albert, Jared Veldheer, Eugene Monroe, Rodger Saffold, and Austin Howard combined to reel in a whopping $96.5 million in guaranteed money Tuesday.
Albert scored the biggest bucket of cash, inking a five-year, $47 million deal that contains a whopping $26 million guaranteed from the Dolphins. Only Browns LT Joe Thomas ($28.5 million) earned more guaranteed money among NFL left tackles in league history. New Miami GM Dennis Hickey knew he had get Ryan Tannehill some protection. Albert qualifies, but will turn 30 during the season and has a bit of a history with back problems. Back issues don't tend to go away in offensive linemen.
Monroe was our No. 1 overall free agent entering Tuesday. The Ravens let him hit the open market for a brief period before eventually locking him up to a five-year, $37.5 million deal that included "just" $17.5 million guaranteed. GM Ozzie Newsome did it again, securing a top-notch blindside protector for a bit below market value. In terms of annual average, Monroe, 27 next month, is the 13th-highest paid left tackle. Big win for the Ravens.
Veldheer is a vastly underrated left tackle who excels as a pass protector. He secured a five-year, $35 million deal from the tackle-needy Cardinals. Prior to tearing his triceps last summer and missing all but five starts in 2013, Veldheer hadn't missed a game in his career. The 26-year-old was our No. 2 free-agent left tackle and could end up being the "steal" of the 2014 tackle class. He received $17 million guaranteed and is the league's 18th-highest paid player at his position in annual average. The Raiders chose to dish out $21 million guaranteed and $8.5 million annually to Saffold instead of paying Veldheer. Big mistake in our eyes. Veldheer is a massive upgrade on Bradley Sowell and Nate Potter in the desert.
Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie basically handed out blank checks to Saffold and Howard on Tuesday. Saffold secured a five-year, $42.5 million deal that includes an insane $21 million guaranteed. He hasn't played a full 16-game season since his rookie 2010 campaign and was booted from left tackle to right tackle then eventually right guard last year by the Rams when they signed Jake Long. He's fully expected to man the left tackle post in Oakland. Howard was our No. 3 free-agent right tackle (not including Saffold) entering the day and got $15 million of his five-year, $30 million pact guaranteed. That's fifth-most among NFL right tackles. Howard is a power blocker but is just a two-year starter. We like the Howard deal better than the Saffold one, but neither looks great on paper for the Raiders. McKenzie obviously had to overpay to get them to come to Oakland.
Defensive Backs Cash in Big
Along with offensive tackles, the defensive-back market was picked apart Tuesday. FS Jairus Byrd and CB Aqib Talib were given $28 million and $26 million guaranteed, respectively. That's more than the total values of both SS T.J. Ward and CB Alterraun Verner's potential total contract values. And both Ward and Verner did well for themselves in free agency.
After it appeared Byrd, our No. 2 overall free agent, might struggle to get the money he was seeking, the Saints came out of nowhere and handed him a six-year, $54 million deal that contains a record-setting $28 million guaranteed. It's $10 million more than Dashon Goldson got from the Bucs last March. Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro will form one of -- if not the -- best safety duos in the NFL.
Broncos GM John Elway stole Talib away from the AFC rival Patriots on a six-year, $57 million agreement. Just like Byrd set a new height with his guaranteed money among safeties, Talib sets the bar among cornerbacks with his $26 million. That's $500,000 more than Jerry Jones gave Brandon Carr two off seasons ago. With Talib now in the fold to take away opposing No. 1 receivers, the Broncos have moved on from free agent CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Talib has had injury issues throughout his career, but the Broncos are going all in.
Verner was said to be seeking $10 million annually on a new deal but "settled" for a four-year, $25.5 million contract from the Bucs. With Darrelle Revis on his way out in Tampa Bay, Verner will step in as Lovie Smith's No. 1 corner. He's a better fit for the Cover-2 scheme. … Ward also didn't quite get the money most were expecting him to. He signed a four-year, $23 million deal with the Broncos and will replace SS Duke Ihenacho on the back end in Denver. An already elite Broncos run defense gets better with "box" safety Ward. … The Browns replaced Ward with Donte Whitner on a four-year, $28 million pact. "Hitner" has a similar playing style to his predecessor in Cleveland. … With Whitner leaving the 49ers, San Francisco immediately went out and grabbed longtime Colts SS Antoine Bethea for four years and $26 million. Bethea will bring even more leadership to a defense that certainly doesn't lack it. … Finally, in Indianapolis, the Colts re-upped No. 1 corner Vontae Davis on a four-year, $39 million deal after it appeared he might be headed elsewhere. Owner Jim Irsay isn't afraid to open up the checkbook.
Backup Running Backs Receive Pay Raises
Toby Gerhart, Adrian Peterson's backup in Minnesota the previous four seasons and owner of a career 4.7 YPC on 276 totes, hauled in $10.5 million over three years from the Jaguars. It includes $4.5 million guaranteed. The hefty sum of money leads us to assume that Gerhart will run as Jacksonville's starter ahead of incumbents Jordan Todman and Denard Robinson. Robinson was never really an option. Maurice Jones-Drew won't be re-signed. Gerhart, 27 later this month, excels on third downs in pass protection and as a pass catcher but has displayed pedestrian running skills to this point in his career. We don't suddenly expect him to find it. Gerhart likely won't see many touchdown opportunities in an anemic offense, giving him the looks of a mere flex option in fantasy.
Donald Brown inked an identical three-year, $10.5 million deal with the Chargers, but his agreement includes $500,000 less in guaranteed money than Gerhart. Brown's role in the San Diego backfield appears to be a mystery. Ryan Mathews is coming off a career-year as the early-down back, while Danny Woodhead is a premier third-down back. We tentatively expect Brown to sprinkle in on passing downs and even see some early-down work, effectively dropping both Mathews and Woodhead down the fantasy running back ranks.
Two Big-Name Veterans Granted Their Releases
The Cowboys faced a tough decision with four-time All-Pro DeMarcus Ware that eventually ended in the 31-year-old's release. Dallas was right up against the salary cap and needed the $7.4 million in savings, even though it will eat over $8 million in "dead money." Ware had a down 2013 that saw him battle injuries, but he has plenty of juice left in the tank. He reportedly has already drawn interest from a half-dozen teams. Ware's first visit will be to Denver on Wednesday. The Broncos need a pass rusher with Shaun Phillips a free agent. Ware would be a monster upgrade. He and Von Miller would be a lethal pass-rushing duo.
Unlike Ware, we knew Julius Peppers was going to get the boot from the Bears. It's still shocking to see when it actually happens. Peppers, 34, was set to count nearly $20 million against the cap in 2014, which clearly isn't reasonable. GM Phil Emery had to cut ties with the three-time All-Pro to free up some money to sign Peppers' replacement, Lamarr Houston. Houston inked a five-year, $35 million deal with Chicago on Tuesday. Peppers generated zero known buzz following his release and may have to wait for the first wave of free agency to die down before finding his next home. Peppers has 119 career sacks and 40 forced fumbles. He has some gas left in the tank but not as much as Ware.
Free Agency Quick Slants
Rashad Jennings is signing on with the Giants, though terms have yet to be disclosed. The Giants also re-signed Peyton Hillis to a two-year deal Tuesday. Jennings is quality insurance in case David Wilson (neck surgery) isn't ready for Week 1, which is a real possibility. Andre Brown is likely headed elsewhere in free agency. Jennings had a breakout season in Oakland last season and is capable of playing all three downs. The Giants' backfield situation is one to monitor closely this summer. … Darren McFadden is returning to Oakland on a one-year deal. We really would have liked to see McFadden escape the Black Hole. He's the early favorite for lead-back duties, but as always, McFadden will need to avoid the injury bug. Don't hold your breath. Second-year RB Latavius Murray appears to be next in line. He's an athletic freak who spent his entire rookie year on I.R. Murray remains a guy to target in Dynasty leagues. … The Redskins quickly snagged WR Andre Roberts on a four-year, $16 million deal. The ex-Cardinal was banished to No. 3 duties in Arizona last season but flashed in 2011-2012. He'll slide in as the starter opposite Pierre Garcon and handle some slot reps. Roberts will have some WR3/4 appeal, but it's important to remember Garcon is a target monster. Jordan Reed will be the No. 2 option in the passing attack. … Houston released veteran TE Owen Daniels. He's a favorite of ex-Texans HC and new Ravens OC Gary Kubiak. Baltimore has already held internal discussions about adding Daniels to Dennis Pitta. Kubiak's offenses have always been able to support two tight ends and a No. 1 receiver. … The Cowboys released Miles Austin as a post-June 1 cut. The move was fully expected and puts second-year WR Terrance Williams in the driver's seat for No. 2 duties in "OC" Scott Linehan's pass-happy attack.