More than ever, free agency has become a reflection of the NFL's restlessness, urgency and desperation. In some cases, change is mistaken for progress. In other cases, sales need to be made, either in the boardroom, pressroom or locker room. And then there are those who imagine the garbage of others as the landfill that could become a path to the Super Bowl.
In an age when the start of free agency overwhelms Twitter, you had better believe there is pressure on NFL teams to do something -- anything. New general managers need to put their signatures on their rosters. Some general managers who have been around a while have to do something to keep one step ahead of the lynch mob. It's raspberries and dunce caps for general managers who sit on their hands. Spending money on an offensive tackle and then releasing him the next day after he fails a physical is better than spending no money at all.
Free agency is about filling holes. The difference between how NFL teams fill holes in depth charts and municipalities fill holes in roads is municipalities use the cheapest patching material they can find.
In the first nine hours of free agency alone, teams agreed to contracts worth $1 billion. Bigger budgets are at the root of the new free agency. With this year's salary cap increasing by $10 million, NFL teams had $640 million in available cap space when the starting gun sounded on Tuesday afternoon. So there was more cash and cap space than there were deserving players to pay.
In the first three days of the NFL new year, 61 players changed teams. Many of them were paid as if they would become someone they never have been.
Even the Packers, who normally disdain free agents, signed Julius Peppers, the former Bear, to a deal that could be worth $30 million over three years.
What may stand out more than the players who teams have signed are the players that teams let go. Some, like Peppers, were unceremoniously cut. Others were thanked for their services. And still others heard nothing but silence from longtime employers. Regardless of how they left, all of their fobs no longer worked at the entrance of their old team parking lots.
The Saints are banking on addition by subtraction. They have already cleaned out the lockers of Jabari Greer, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins, Lance Moore, Will Smith and Darren Sproles, all of whom had been part of a lot of New Orleans victories. Equipment men with big black garbage bags are standing by for further instructions.
Seven players who were Pro Bowlers not even a month ago already have found new homes. Brandon Albert, Jairus Byrd, Jason Hatcher, Dexter McCluster, Darrelle Revis, Aqib Talib and Alterraun Verner at some level were not good enough for their teams to retain. If you consider additional players from the previous Pro Bowl, 14 more could be on the move.
And then there were the icons. Peppers. Jared Allen. Champ Bailey. Devin Hester. Steve Smith. DeMarcus Ware. There were different factors that led to each player leaving his longtime home, but there were two common denominators in every case -- age and money. The combination of the two never has been more threatening to veterans. When a player's performance declines, or his durability declines, his salary becomes an albatross that prevents teams from buying other players who could be failing to live up to their contracts. Horrors.
Teams often have other motivations to release fading luminaries. Smith arguably is the most accomplished player in Panthers history. He was invited to play in five Pro Bowls and accumulated more all-purpose yards than any active player in his 13 years in Carolina. Great wide receiver. Fan favorite. But always a bit of a challenge for his coaches. So when age (soon to be 35) met diminished production and a new general manager with no allegiances, the Panthers had their opening.
The thing is, their own teams know these players better than the rest of the world. They are well aware of the ticks and flaws. The Panthers fans who began a "Save Smitty" movement saw the grittiness, the craftiness and the touchdowns. They might not have seen what some said were deteriorating practice habits and freelancing on routes.
Revis is known as the NFL's best cornerback. That's why the Bucs gave him a deal worth $16 million a year last offseason and the Patriots gave him $12 million for this season. Somewhere between reputation and results, and between Tampa and New England, lays the truth. After adding Revis, the Bucs won three fewer games than they did the year before. He was coming off an ACL injury and did not perform like a $16 million player. So the new regime in Tampa cut Revis and replaced him with an $8 million cornerback in Verner who had been regarded as small and slow prior to a career year in Tennessee. If Revis has the same impact on the Patriots that he had on the Bucs, he will be a candidate to be vastly overpaid by a fourth team in four years in 2015.
Revis figured to be a popular free agent in part because of the offense being played in places like Denver and New Orleans. Some of what we saw at the start of free agency, especially the race to acquire corners and safeties, was a response to the passing game gone wild. There also was a clear movement by some teams, like the Jaguars and Falcons, to acquire players that would make them more like the brutish Super Bowl champion Seahawks. With every expenditure came a justification.
George Halas, arguably the most successful NFL team owner of all time, was said to throw nickels around like manhole covers. This NFL, he would not recognize.