Nuclear Arms Race: The Wild NFC West
The first week of the 2013 NFL league year was a wild one. On Tuesday, March 12th, at 4pm EST, the new year began and free agents were actually free to sign with new teams. The Chicago Bears made the first splash, adding big tight end Martellus Bennett, and everyone else followed suit.
In the NFC West, the Seattle Seahawks were the most shocking spenders. Their now-famous trade for Percy Harvin became official, and the details of his new six-year, $67 million contract became public. On Wednesday, the Seahawks added Cliff Avril, who was perhaps the top pass-rusher in the free agent market. It was a completely unexpected move, even among avid Seahawks' fans. Avril was expected to break the bank, having turned down a three-year $30 million offer from the Detroit Lions in 2012. However, he signed with Seattle for only two years and $13 million. On Thursday, the Seahawks caught the NFL off-guard again by signing the best remaining pass-rusher on the market, defensive end Michael Bennett. Again, Bennett was expected to hold out for a good payday, but he gave the Seahawks a “competitive team discount,” opting for a one-year, $5 million opportunity to win a Super Bowl and cash out in 2014.
The St. Louis Rams also made some splashes in free agency. In terms of total dollars, they actually outspent the Seahawks. The first move they made was a rather small one, re-signing defensive end William Hayes to a modest three-year $10.25 million deal. Then they really went in on former Tennessee Titans tight end Jared Cook, offering him five years and over $35 million. With $19 million guaranteed, Cook’s contract ties Jason Witten’s for the most guaranteed money to a tight end in NFL history. Finally, after several days of testing and negotiating, the Rams were comfortable enough with Jake Long’s health to offer the offensive tackle a four-year contract worth $34 million. He will bring some much-needed stability to their offensive line.
The Arizona Cardinals have had a rather uneventful free agency so far. They haven’t made any big splashes, but they’ve added several solid role players for lesser money. They released Kevin Kolb and Kerry Rhodes and they let Stewart Bradley, Quentin Groves, Greg Toler, and Adrian Wilson walk, while adding Rashard Mendenhall, Drew Stanton, Jerraud Powers, Yeremiah Bell, Lorenzo Alexander, Jasper Brinkley, Matt Shaughnessy, and Antoine Cason. While none of these acquisitions will by itself change their upcoming season, the result of the moves is that they got younger, cheaper, and probably a little bit better. They’re decidedly the worst team in the division, but if the first week of the new year is any indication, they’re going to start heading in the right direction again.
Finally, the San Francisco 49ers also took a fairly conservative tack into the 2013 NFL year. The biggest move they made was trading quarterback Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs for a second-round pick in 2013 and another pick in 2014. They also sent a 2013 sixth-rounder to the Baltimore Ravens for Anquan Boldin. Both of these moves will have an immediate, direct effect on their 2013 season. They’ll be able to use the second-round pick to add a top-level rookie, and Boldin will replace the production of Delanie Walker (lost to the Titans) and Randy Moss, as well as provide an excellent number two receiving option for Colin Kaepernick. Signing defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey was an underrated move that could pay dividends if Vic Fangio can help him reclaim the magic he had at LSU. They also replaced Isaac Sopoaga with Ian Williams, which injects some youth into a defensive line that needed it. And on March 19, the 49ers signed kicker Phil Dawson to replace the recently much-maligned David Akers. Dawson is one of the best kickers in the league and should keep them at the top of the special teams rankings.
All in all, the Seahawks and Rams made some big splashes in free agency and filled some significant holes. They’ll each look to supplement their free agent moves with another solid draft. The Cardinals opted to cut costs and use short-term deals to patch some holes with a few younger guys with upside. And the 49ers all but eschewed the first round of free agency, letting some key players find big paydays elsewhere, and opting to use their fourteen draft picks to fill the holes on their squad.
Some teams spend big in free agency and some opt to build through the draft. The Rams, Seahawks, and 49ers have opted for the latter in recent years. This year, the Rams and Seahawks had the cap space to wade into free agency a bit, and they found some good matches without paying too much. So even though they spent more than the 49ers did, they got good value for their money. The 49ers will very likely get good value for their multitude of draft picks, and the NFC West will be the division to beat during the 2013 NFL season.