long with the NFL draft, unrestricted free agency is one of the two primary tools that owners, presidents and general managers have at their disposal when it comes to building their teams. Everyone involved with the process naturally wants to do something -- anything -- to make his team better, and hopefully into a championship contender.
History has shown that the internal and external expectations that come along with high-volume, high-dollar participation in the UFA market are often unrealistic (with the UFA signing period kicking off at the beginning of the new league year, optimism, expectations and hope are at maximum levels). And if the results aren't there, it can ultimately cost coaches, administrators and players their jobs.
Maximizing surplus value (performance value relative to cost) is the goal with every transaction that you make when constructing a team in the salary-cap era, with free agency presenting a difficult set of circumstances relative to achieving that goal, particularly within the first 24 to 36 hours of the beginning of the signing period, when players have their greatest amount of negotiating leverage. Decision-makers must balance the player's age, health, and organizational and locker-room fit to secure a reasonable deal within a marketplace that is less than rational due to every teams' desire to improve, and some teams' willingness to pay premium prices.
With all those factors in mind, here is my take on five deals that stand out as the best and worst values among UFA signings so far -- three that look good, and two that don't.
Mike Mitchell, free safety, Pittsburgh Steelers
Guarantees: $5.25 million ($4.75 million signing bonus; $500,000 roster bonus due April 14)
Average per year: $5 million over five years
If you look at how the Steelers deploy their safeties, it is evident that Troy Polamalu is what I like to call the "down" safety, or the guy who is usually in the box versus the run and responsible for underneath coverage responsibilities, while Ryan Clark in 2013 was the middle-of-the-field safety in their base three-deep looks. Well, Clark is a UFA and is not returning, and Mitchell pretty much had the same coverage responsibilities for Carolina that Clark had for Pittsburgh.
Mitchell provides an upgrade in youth, size and speed over Clark, and has a big-hit factor that potentially could equal Clark's. However, Mitchell must improve his tackling efficiency. Too often he didn't finish plays due to not wrapping and securing ball carriers, but this is a coachable aspect of his game. But the surplus value barring injury should be to the Steelers' liking when they look back on this deal two years from now.
Alterraun Verner, defensive back, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Guarantees: $8 million full guarantee ($5 million base salary in 2014; $3 million roster bonus due fifth day of 2014 league year; and additional guarantees bring total to $14 million over first three years of the contract)
APY: $6.375 million over four years
Free agency is about fit, both on and off the field. There can be no surprise or confusion as to what you are bringing to your team, and it appears that by all accounts this was a perfect fit for the Buccaneers. Verner needs a defense that is primarily a "double-high safety" scheme in order maximize his talents, as he is not an every-down matchup or one-on-one corner who can line up in single-safety coverage schemes and expect to not get exposed.
He is very tough, will force the run, and will tackle as well as any corner in the league, and he has good route recognition as well as adequate finishing skills. However, he has average size, is speed deficient, and can be taken advantage of by receivers with length if singled up on the outside without true safety help over the top. Lovie Smith's and Leslie Frazier's schemes philosophically will support and enhance what this player does best, and for the money that the Bucs are paying him, they should get the surplus value they are looking for.
Chris Clemons, defensive end, Jacksonville Jaguars
Guarantees : $4.475 million full guarantee ($1.475 million base salary; $3 million roster bonus due eighth day of 2014 league year). Additional guarantees bring total to $5.475 million over first two years of contract, with the opportunity for additional $31,250 per-game roster bonus if on 46-man roster each year of deal.
APY: $4.375 million over four years
Coach Gus Bradley is building something special in Jacksonville, and to make sure his message is distributed throughout the locker room, he is bringing in players he had in Seattle. Clemons, along with DT/DE Red Bryant, will help set the culture, and will also have a big impact on the Jags' ability to rush the passer. Given that he will be 33 years old during the season, the Jags needed to take some steps to protect themselves in the event that injury or noticeable skill deterioration occurs, and there is evidence that the team did that (there is no signing bonus, and the financial upside for Clemons comes in the form of per-game roster bonuses and playing-time and performance incentives).
On the plus side, Clemons showed late in the 2013 season that he can still be a dominant force as an edge rusher and a solid run defender who can align in a 6-technique (head up over a TE) and play strong at the point of attack. Being back on the East Coast (he's from Georgia) appealed to Clemons, which should result in a happy, motivated individual playing in a program/scheme he is familiar with and has already been productive in.
Tyson Jackson, defensive end, Atlanta Falcons
Guarantees: $9.5 million full guarantee ($8 million signing bonus; $1.5 million base salary in 2014). Additional base-salary guarantees could bring total to $11 million in 2015.
APY: $5 million over five years
The No. 3 overall pick in the 2009 draft benefited from a need/scheme fit and the familiarity of being in Atlanta; the Falcons lacked the players with the body type and experience to help them transition to a 3-4 defense (Jackson was drafted by former Chiefs GM Scott Pioli, who is now the assistant GM to Thomas Dimitroff).
With the likelihood of his total guaranteed money hitting $11 million, I find it hard to believe that the Falcons could not have found better value in a guy best characterized as being an average, two-down run defender who will play less than 50 percent of snaps and who possesses just average athletic ability, marginal pass-rush skills, and an inability to get off blocks and make plays with any level of consistency at the point of attack. Big men who possess the physical and athletic attributes to play DE in a 3-4 scheme are hard to come by, but I don't see this as being good value.
Paul Soliai, defensive tackle, Atlanta Falcons
Guarantees: $11 million full guarantee ($7 million salary bonus; $2 million base salary in 2014; $2 million roster bonus in 2014). Additional base-salary guarantees could bring total to $14 million in '15.
APY: $6.4 million over five years
Another beneficiary of need/scheme familiarity and a personal relationship with someone on the staff (Soliai played for Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in Miami from 2010-11), Soliai struck a deal that is above fair-market value given his skill level. Soliai had his best season from a statistical standpoint in 2010, resulting in his playing the 2011 season on the franchise tag at $12.47 million. Subsequently, his production dipped significantly in '11 and has not been the same since.
While I understand the importance of the nose tackle to the overall success of the 3-4 defense, Soliai is a low-motor player with limited range, inconsistent point-of-attack technique, and little to no value on third down -- and he will play 45 percent or fewer snaps (while earning guarantees and an APY that will put him in the top 10 in both categories when compared to similar veteran UFA contracts). Despite all the factors that typically give this type of situation a chance to be a reasonably successful one, the surplus value the Falcons are likely to receive is not going to be what they ideally want.
"what if there were no hypothetical situations?"