Day Two of Free Agency Recap: AFC
By Justin Higdon
Day Two of NFL Free Agency in the AFC started at sunrise with the early bird Cleveland Browns signing outside linebacker Quentin Groves to a two-year contract. The Groves signing came on the heels of Tuesday’s deals with Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant, and should help fortify the Browns’ front seven. Groves had his best season in 2012 with the Arizona Cardinals while playing under Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton. At $2.8 million, Groves will be paid like a backup, but has potential to impact Cleveland’s defense beyond that dollar amount. The Browns are probably done shopping for frontline defensive players now, and their signings create more options with the number six overall draft choice. Once thought to be targeting a pass rusher in that slot, Cleveland now has flexibility to trade back (if they can find a partner), or address a number of other positions. Here’s a look at the rest of the action in the AFC on Wednesday…
Moving in to Peyton’s Place
Perhaps the biggest move of the day came when Tom Brady lost his favorite target to Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Wes Welker, whose slot receiving ability had turned him into a New England icon, took his 100 catches a season to Denver on a reasonable two-year $12 million deal. Welker’s signing is obviously not part of a youth movement, but the Broncos are interested in winning now with their soon-to-be 37-year old, future Hall of Fame quarterback. The deal gives Manning a clear upgrade to Brandon Stokely, and a security blanket the Broncos can count on in those crucial third down situations. Welker will be sharing the ball with up-and-coming receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, so he probably won’t match the production he had for the Patriots; but he will still see plenty of passes, and may even get more opportunities in the red zone.
Denver got busy on the defensive side of the ball Wednesday too. They inked former Jacksonville defensive tackle Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton to a two-year deal, and linebacker Stewart Bradley to a one-year contract. The 26-year old Knighton shook off a preseason eye injury to play in all 16 games for the Jaguars last year, and his 330-pound frame will help clog the middle of the defense. Bradley was a reserve for the past two seasons in Arizona, but he may get a chance to compete for a starting job with the Broncos. He will be 29 years old when the season begins, so he presumably still has some football ahead of him.
Titans of Industry
The Tennessee Titans followed up Tuesday’s big money signing of guard Andy Levitre with a couple of generous contracts on Wednesday. Running back Shonn Greene, formerly of the Jets, agreed to a three-year deal worth $10 million – or, ten million dollars more than anyone on twitter thought he deserved. But Greene has rushed for over 1000 yards in each of the last two seasons; and, while not a dynamic runner by any means, should be able to contribute in short yardage situations. Still, Tennessee’s decision to add Greene’s salary to Chris Johnson’s seems to be a strange allocation of funds. Similar backs will almost certainly be available for pennies on the dollar on Day Three of the draft. The Titans appear to be hell-bent on running the ball in 2013, and may be trying to do everything they can to take pressure off of third-year quarterback Jake Locker. If so, they are paying top dollar to do so.
With running on the mind, the Titans also made a move with an eye toward stopping their opponents. Massive defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill left Detroit Wednesday afternoon in favor of a three-year, $11.4 million contract from Tennessee. Hill might not be a flashy signing, but he should help the Titans improve a defense that finished 24th in the league in rushing yards allowed.
Money for Manny
Buffalo made the biggest splash during the 2012 free agent signing period by landing prized pass rusher Mario Williams for big bucks. But the Bills were quiet on Day One of free agency this year, and made more news Tuesday by cutting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and losing Levitre to the Titans. On Wednesday Buffalo entered the fray by signing former Bengals linebacker Manny Lawson to a four-year contract worth $12 million. Lawson, a former first round draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers, has never become the pass rusher he was expected to be when he was chosen 22nd overall in 2006; but he has experience in a number of different defenses, and should help upgrade Buffalo’s attack. In addition, Lawson will be reunited with Williams, who was his teammate in college at North Carolina State. Lawson had 3.5 sacks in his two seasons in Cincinnati, but did top out with as many as 6.5 back in 2009 while playing with the Niners.
Steel City Homecoming
Finally, while most of the big name free agent signings belonged to the NFC on Wednesday, one feel good story emerged from the AFC. Long time backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski – who has seen action with four NFL teams since being drafted out of Toledo in the sixth round of the 2006 draft – signed a three-year contract to play for his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers. Gradkowski spent his last two seasons backing up Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, but has started games for Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Oakland during the course of his career. He’ll obviously be backing up Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, but it is always nice to see a player get an opportunity to suit up in front of friends and family. Plus, Big Ben has missed eight games over the past three seasons, so there is a good chance Bruce will get a few more starts under his belt before his contract expires. Not bad for player who was scooped off the street in 2008 to make a couple of late season appearances for the Browns after the team lost its first three quarterbacks to season ending injuries. Gradkowski’s lone start that season came in Week 17 on the road against…the Steelers, of course.