The NFL season is drawing near, with new free agency acquisitions and recently-drafted rookies hitting the practice field for OTAs. Players are reverting back to life during football season, and before long, we’ll have a more concrete idea as to how the 2014 NFL season just might play out.
Most teams are looking to build on what they accomplished in the previous season, save for maybe the Seattle Seahawks who would simply love to repeat as Super Bowl champions. The rest, however, are hoping their new acquisitions can rejuvenate their rosters and will assist them in unseating the defending champs.
Here are the 10 best free-agent signings based on the immediate impacts those players could have for their new teams.
10. Jared Veldheer, OT, Arizona Cardinals
In two short years, the Cardinals have made a dramatic push toward improving their once God-awful offensive line. They solidified the group by inking the former Raider, Veldheer, to a five-year deal worth $35 million.
Pro Football Focus ranked Veldheer as the fourth-best available player heading into free agency, despite an injury-riddled 2013. His campaign was ultimately a disappointment, but it’s hard to ignore his two previous years for Oakland, including 2012, during which he ranked as PFF’s ninth-best offensive tackle.
Veldheer started all 16 games in 2012, allowing just five sacks, three hits and 25 hurries of then-Raiders quarterback (and now Cardinals quarterback) Carson Palmer. Prior to injury, he was a consistent force who should help stabilize an offensive line that could benefit from his Pro Bowl potential.
9. Aqib Talib, CB, Denver Broncos
The NFL Network’s sixth-best cornerback in their annual Top 100 Players list, Talib is one of the most talented athletes in the NFL. His play beams with potential to be among the league’s biggest stars—if he could just stay healthy and out of trouble off the field.
Talib has been brought in to Denver to help improve the product on the field. And as long as he’s healthy and focused, he’s going to be an instant improvement over every defensive back the Broncos had in 2013. He is coming off a Pro Bowl season in New England, during which he tallied 41 tackles, four interceptions and 13 passes defended.
Of the league’s premier shutdown corners, Talib may be the most underrated.
Aqib Talib held star receivers Jimmy Graham, Vincent Jackson, and A.J. Green to under 100 yards this year — combined….
— Patriots News (@BDCPatriots) January 17, 2014
For a Broncos defense that ranked 27th and allowed an average of 251 yards per game through the air, Talib will be an invaluable addition for the defending AFC Champions. The team’s greatest weakness since acquiring quarterback Peyton Manning has been in the secondary. If Manning and the Broncos can’t win the Super Bowl now, it’s just not meant to be.
8. Lamarr Houston, DE, Chicago Bears
The Bears finished dead-last in sacks last season with 31, so it was only logical for them to go out and pursue a pass rusher who’d help them improve in that department going forward.
Enter Lamarr Houston, the standout former second-round pick for the Raiders who recorded 6.5 sacks in 2013. The third-year veteran ranked 11th among all 4-3 defensive ends, better than previous Bears pass rusher Julius Peppers. Peppers was released shortly after Chicago’s signing of Houston.
Houston is also an adept run stopper, providing a versatile asset on the edge that the Bears desperately need. They were the league’s worst against the run last season, allowing 161.4 yards per game and 22 touchdowns.
7. Eric Decker, WR, New York Jets
Perhaps not a “true” No. 1, the Jets’ big free-agent acquisition comes to New York to be just that. The Jets have lacked an elite receiving talent for quite some time (arguably since Keyshawn Johnson ditched Gang Green for Tampa Bay in 2000). And they’re hopeful Decker can be as productive as he was in Denver—when he was catching balls from surgical QB Peyton Manning.
We can’t overlook the fact that, even with Tim Tebow at quarterback for the Broncos, Decker was able to produce. In 11 games catching passes from Tebow in 2011, Decker had 22 receptions for 346 yards and four of his eight touchdowns that year.
What’s impressive about Decker is his versatility. He is a viable option lined up outside or in the slot. He has no issue running a multitude of routes, as the table below (via PFF) illustrates.
Decker is still in his prime, set to be 27 by the time the 2014 NFL season gets underway. And while he may not make the Jets a Super Bowl contender, he does make them better. He provides the team with a better option in the passing game than they have had in years and, as a result, should help to alleviate some of the pressure on former second-round pick Stephen Hill to develop. And it can also allow for Jeremy Kerley to continue to thrive as a solid option from the slot.
6. DeSean Jackson, WR, Washington Redskins
The Redskins made quite the splash when they signed Eagles castoff DeSean Jackson. Their offense needed the firepower and their own division rivals essentially handed an electric playmaker to them on a silver platter.
Paired with reliable pass catcher Pierre Garcon, Jackson has the potential to post big numbers bringing in receptions from quarterback Robert Griffin III. He has made vast improvements to his game since entering the league in 2008, capping off his Eagles career with a 1,332-yard, nine-touchdown campaign.
The Redskins would love to get similar play from the Cal product, but they’ll have to use him properly to maximize his potential in D.C.. Garcon should still be the No. 1 option for Griffin III, as he is a better all-around talent. However, Jackson is a game changer who can play outside or in the slot.
As this piece which was published on PFF shows, Jackson should be used primarily as a deep threat on go routes and crosses to provide a nice complement to last year’s receptions leader Garcon. So long as the Redskins’ offensive line can keep RG3 on his feet, Jackson and Garcon—along with second-year tight end Jordan Reed—should form one of the most potent passing attacks in the NFL.
5. Branden Albert, OT, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins allowed a league-high 58 sacks of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Not exactly the way you want to protect your 2012 first-round pick. So, as a good franchise should, Miami locked up former Chiefs tackle Branden Albert.
Albert, 29, is a superb pass blocker who has ranked among the top 10 tackles in that department each of the last three years, per PFF (via Bleacher Report’s Ty Schalter). He could benefit from more disciplined play, as the second-worst qualifying tackle in penalties. But overall, he is an immediate improvement for the Dolphins with great potential to help bolster Tannehill’s credentials in the passing game.
Albert may not be able to help turn around the league’s 28th-ranked rushing attack. He ranked 19th in run blocking this past season. However, his signing clearly illustrates what the Dolphins want to do first and foremost on offense—pass the football.
4. Michael Johnson, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The former Bengal was one of the more sought-after defensive free agents this season. Much of that has to do with his well-balanced abilities which make him a lethal pass rusher and viable run stopper from the edge.
Johnson is a perfect fit for new Bucs head coach Lovie Smith’s defense and could very well build on his 11.5-sack campaign in 2012. Lovie’s defense could certainly use it. He’s taken the helm for a football squad that recorded just 35 sacks in 2013—tied for 23rd in the NFL.
Though he posted just 3.5 sacks this past season, he registered a league-high 61 quarterback pressures (the sum of sacks, hits, and hurries) and placed among the league’s best pass rushers. He’s also a proven tackling machine, having recorded 50-plus tackles in each of the last two seasons. He was the fifth-best run stopper among 4-3 defensive ends.
Top Run Stop Percentages amongst 4-3 Defensive Ends in 2013 pic.twitter.com/AbqHYfUvfW
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 19, 2014
Johnson’s acquisition immediately made the Bucs better, formulating a stalwart defensive group that features defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David. Joining the highly successful system run by Lovie can only help the 27-year-old defensive end improve.
3. Alterraun Verner, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Johnson’s acquisition was not the only big splash Tampa made, nor was it the best.
The departure of Darrelle Revis left a major void in the Bucs’ secondary. They quickly addressed the need by signing former Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner who actually scored better than Revis in Win Probability Added by a long shot and came at much cheaper price ($6.5 million per year vs. $12 million for Revis).
This past season, the former UCLA Bruin recorded 57 tackles, five interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Pairing Verner with what should be a solid pass rush led by Johnson and McCoy, and the Bucs should have a solid pass defense.
Now Verner comes to a defense in desperate need of secondary help. Despite having Revis on the roster last season, the Bucs recorded their third consecutive season allowing 30 touchdowns through the air. The Bucs are hopeful Verner will help to change things against the pass.
2. Jairus Byrd, S, New Orleans Saints
The Saints went out this offseason and scored big time, landing former Bills safety Jairus Byrd to help rebuild a lackluster secondary. Byrd, an ideal fit for Rob Ryan’s aggressive defensive unit, has been one of the NFL’s best safeties since entering the league in 2009.
The Saints will be banking on Byrd to bring his penchant for forcing turnovers to New Orleans. It was their ability to create takeaways that allowed the Saints to march onto a Super Bowl championship in 2009.
In 2013, however, they forced just 19 turnovers all of last season. Byrd has averaged just under seven takeaways a year in five seasons. The 27-year-old defensive back joins second-year pro Kenny Vaccaro in the Saints’ defensive backfield to form one of the most elite safety duos in the league.
All this is assuming Byrd is able to stay healthy, of course. The Saints’ newest acquisition underwent back surgery on May 29, but is expected to only miss OTAs and minicamp.
1. Darrelle Revis, CB, New England Patriots
The Patriots had a great cornerback in Aqib Talib, but he isn’t Darrelle Revis. Even with the recent injury struggles, no one is better than Revis in pass coverage.
Few other players in the NFL can be depended on to dominate one half of the field and free up 10 other players on defense to make an impact of their own when the opposing quarterback chooses to throw away from Revis. And now the former Jet is a Patriot, expected to be tasked with shutting down the opponent’s top wideout as only he can.
In his role, Revis isn’t going to post big production numbers. But that’s not important. His presence alone makes everyone else on the defense better by default because more often than not, they know the football will not be thrown in Revis’ direction. That’s an entire half of the field unavailable to the opposing offense.
His one season in Tampa Bay was arguably a waste, playing out of scheme and improperly used. Yet he still starred as one of the league’s best shutdown corners.
Revis will give Bill Belichick some wiggle room on defense to get creative and take risks he hasn’t been able to take in a long time. If he fails, it’s hardly any skin off the Patriots’ back as they signed him to a one-year deal. However, I’d bet on the return of Revis Island to the AFC East—and another year in hell for his former team, the Jets.