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Pete Carroll and the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks have seen several starters and key contributors leave via free agency
Similar to last year, free agency has not been kind to the NFL’s reigning champions. While nothing will take away from Seattle’s dominating victory over Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII, the Seahawks team that will take the field in Week 1 as defending champions will look considerably different than the one that manhandled the Broncos in MetLife Stadium less than two months ago.
Seattle isn’t the only playoff team that looks worse on paper right now compared to last season either. Carolina, Cincinnati and Indianapolis also have gone through some roster shuffling, which has left each with new holes or areas of weakness that need to be addressed.
Dallas entered free agency hamstrung by their own cap issues, so it’s not surprising to see them on this list of “losers,” but then there’s the curious case of Oakland. The Raiders have not been shy about spending money and bringing in new faces. However, a closer look at the moves the struggling franchise has made is yet another example of how quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality.
Related: 2014 NFL Free Agency Winners
2014 NFL Free Agency Losers (in alphabetical order)
Even after San Francisco beat Carolina at home in the NFC Divisional Round to end the Panthers’ season, things seemed to be looking up for head coach Ron Rivera and his young team. Unfortunately, the reigning NFC South champions have seen their top three wide receivers and two starting defensive backs sign with other teams and their Pro Bowl left tackle retire.
No one around the league was surprised when Carolina and Steve Smith, the franchise’s all-time leading wide receiver, decided to part ways. However, his exodus to Baltimore along with Brandon LaFell signing with New England and Ted Ginn joining Arizona, leave former Steeler Jerricho Cotchery and former Buccaneer Tiquan Underwood along with holdovers Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King as quarterback Cam Newton’s inexperienced (in terms of playing together) and relatively unproven receiving corps.
Additionally, while the team franchised defensive end Greg Hardy to make sure he wouldn’t get away, the loss of cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Mitchell opens up two holes on a defense that was the team’s strength in 2013. There’s also the matter of replacing the now retired Jordan Gross, who has been a mainstay at tackle, primarily on the left side, since he was drafted eighth overall in 2003. Put it all together and general manager Dave Gettleman and Rivera have their work cut out for them in the draft if they want to carry over any momentum in a division that includes New Orleans and Atlanta. On top of that, Tampa Bay has been busy this offseason, first hiring Lovie Smith as its new coach and then being one of the more aggressive teams early in free agency.
Like the Panthers, the Bengals were coming off of a division title and seemed to be on the upswing. Cincinnati also entered free agency with plenty of cap space to use on either extending or re-signing its current core or to address areas of weakness. Instead the defending AFC North champions have seen both coordinators leave to take head coaching jobs and also have been fairly quiet in free agency so far, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Standout defensive end Michael Johnson signed a huge five-year, $43.75 million deal ($24 million guaranteed) to go to Tampa Bay and the Bengals also lost starting tackle Anthony Collins to the Buccaneers as well.
Perhaps even more painful, especially for Bengals fans, is that division rival Cleveland signed wide receiver Andrew Hawkins to an offer sheet that Cincinnati decided to not match. The Bengals did sign a few players, notably former Browns backup quarterback James Campbell and Green Bay offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse, but they have yet to sign a replacement for Johnson and it just seems like this is a team that should have acted with more sense of urgency. While the three straight playoff appearances (a franchise first) are a welcome sight, there’s still plenty of work left to do – the Bengals haven’t won a postseason game in more than two decades (1990).
The Cowboys and archrival Redskins found themselves in the same boat this offseason. Their penchant for spending freely and wildly during free agency and poor salary cap management in previous years coupled with some harsh penalties handed down by the NFL for their actions during the uncapped 2010 season finally came home to roost. Both teams were severely hamstrung by their roster and cap situations, which limited their ability to make many moves in free agency this offseason.
However, the reason the Cowboys show up here and not the Redskins is because Washington made the most of what little cap room it had to sign several players to modest deals, while Dallas had to cut ties with two of its top defensive players and a former Pro Bowl wide receiver. To be fair, while cutting wide receiver Miles Austin was probably a difficult decision, the move also made plenty of sense as his production had slipped in recent seasons.
The loss of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, however, is a different story entirely, as the Cowboys’ defense must replace two starters who were responsible for half of the team’s sacks last season. And this doesn’t include fellow defensive lineman Anthony Spencer, who remains an unrestricted free agent. If he doesn’t return, that’s another hole Jerry Jones, head coach Jason Garrett and new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will have to fill on that side of the ball alone.
So with Ware now in Denver hoping to get that long sought-after Super Bowl ring and Hatcher on the other side of the Dallas-Washington rivalry, the Cowboys are hoping that Henry Melton, the former Bear recovering from a torn ACL, and Jeremy Mincey can somehow fill these fairly large holes on a defense that ranked last in the NFL in 2013. Having missed the playoffs each of the last four seasons, Garrett already had enough to worry about and that was before free agency began and further depleted his roster.
The Colts are the reigning AFC South champions, have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in Andrew Luck and had plenty of cap space to beef up the supporting cast around him. While re-signing cornerback Vontae Davis, especially after long-time safety Antoine Bethea bolted for San Francisco, was a priority, Indianapolis was reported to be targeting either Eric Decker or Julian Edelman to bring in another weapon for Luck and the passing game. That didn’t happen, however, as the team invested heavily in Davis, former Cleveland linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and former Raven defensive lineman Arthur Jones.
To be fair, Indianapolis’ defense needed to be addressed. The Colts gave up 87 points and more than 900 yards in their two playoff games. However, Davis ($15 million guaranteed) and Jackson ($10.4 million guaranteed) didn’t come cheap. Besides Bethea, another key departure was running back Donald Brown, who signed with San Diego. Indianapolis did sign former Giant wideout Hakeem Nicks for one year and brought back running back Ahmad Bradshaw, but the former has seen his stock drop considerably in recent seasons while the latter is coming back from a serious neck injury.
So as it stands now, the Colts have lost their top defender (Bethea) and running back (Brown) and also are counting on 35-year-old Reggie Wayne, who tore his ACL last season, to return and immediately be of Luck’s most productive targets right out of the gates. Oh yeah, Indianapolis also doesn’t have a first-round pick in May’s draft because of the trade for Cleveland running back Trent Richardson, who scored four touchdowns and averaged less than three yards per carry for his new team. Sure sounds like a team that should have done more in free agency, no?
On one hand the Raiders have been one of the busier teams in the NFL so far, having signed 11 free agents from other teams and five of their own. The activity doesn’t end there, as Oakland has seen seven players from last year’s roster depart and also traded for former Houston starting quarterback Matt Schaub.
To this point, however, the additions don’t equal the subtractions, as two of the players that have left were arguably the Raiders’ best on each side of the ball – defensive end Lamarr Houston (signed with Chicago) and left tackle Jared Veldheer (Arizona). Also gone are running back Rashad Jennings (New York Giants), defensive tackle Vance Walker (Kansas City) along with cornerbacks Tracy Porter (Washington), Phillip Adams (Seattle) and Mike Jenkins (Tampa Bay).
Oakland has brought in some recognizable names in defensive end Justin Tuck, linebacker LaMarr Woodley, wide receiver James Jones and cornerback Carlos Rogers, but how effective each can be at this point in their respective career and given their supporting cast remains to be seen. Perhaps even more curious is that even though running back Darren McFadden re-signed for one year, the team still went out and added former Jacksonville Jaguar Maurice Jones-Drew (three-year deal).
There’s no question the Raiders needed to do something to address one of the weaker rosters in the league. However, there are plenty of questions surrounding how they have gone about doing it. The majority of the new players signed or the holdovers brought back are at least 30 years old, while the team let two young building blocks (Houston and Veldheer) leave seemingly without much of a fight. And even with Schaub now on board, the Raiders’ quarterback situation is far from settled.
So while the names on Oakland’s roster have certainly changed, it still looks an awfully lot like the same old Silver and Black. And that’s not a good thing.
It’s hard to call the Super Bowl champs “losers,” but just like Baltimore a year ago the Seahawks are finding out how much tougher things are once you are on top. A year ago, the Ravens were the victim of their own success, as salary cap issues and other factors forced them to bid farewell to several starters and other key contributors from the team that won the Lombardi Trophy.
This year it’s the Seahawks’ turn, as the team’s blueprint for success – maximizing on draft picks, especially in later rounds and identifying young players who didn’t work out for other teams – makes it virtually impossible to keep the roster intact. Especially with Super Bowl XLVIII MVP Russell Wilson and All-Pro defensive backs Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas among those in line for lucrative contract extensions.
As far as this offseason went, Seattle made re-signing defensive end Michael Bennett a priority and got the job done with a four-year, $28.5 million ($16 million guaranteed) pact. In turn, however, fellow starting defensive linemen Clinton McDonald and Chris Clemons decided to sign elsewhere, joining Tampa Bay and Jacksonville respectively. The Jaguars also lured end Red Bryant, a key cog in the defensive line rotation, away while cornerbacks Brandon Browner (New England) and Walter Thurmond (New York Giants) departed as well.
However, one of the biggest potential losses could end up being wide receiver Golden Tate. Wilson’s top target in his first two seasons, Tate signed a five-year deal to become Calvin Johnson’s sidekick in Detroit. The Seahawks still have Percy Harvin, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse on the roster, but Tate’s value to this team went beyond the passes he caught. Seattle also lost a piece of its offensive line as right tackle Breno Giacomini signed with the Jets.
There is still a lot of talent left for Pete Carroll to coach, starting with the likes of Wilson, Sherman, Thomas, Bennett and Harvin. However, there’s also no disputing that the team that takes the field in Week 1 when the Seahawks begin defense of their championship will look distinctively different. Again this was the case last year with Baltimore and the Ravens went on to finish 8-8 and not make the playoffs. Will Seattle follow the same path? Free agency already seems to have made any chances of a repeat that much tougher.