Super Bowl teams are made in NFL drafts. Just look at the current roster of the Seattle Seahawks if you don't believe me. While hoped-to-be cornerstones of squads are located and taken in the player selection process that occurs every spring, it's via free agency that roster holes are filled.
The NFL is set up to benefit veteran players financially and to make it nearly impossible for teams to keep all of their best players for longer than a few years. After reviewing the big free agent pickups of 2013 as it pertains to the cap numbers of those players, one thing stuck out in a big way:
It's “buyer beware,” especially when dealing with a player who joins a different team through free agency.
10 Dannell Ellerbe - LB - Miami Dolphins: $2.425 million in 2013
Ellerbe put up impressive stats, finishing third on the Dolphins in tackles with 101. He also contributed a sack, two interceptions and five passes defended. That's pretty solid for a guy with a cap hit of under $2.5 million.
Here's where things get murky. Ellerbe's cap hit goes up to $7.425 million next season. Ellerbe was also downright terrible against the run, and Miami as a team allowed 124.9 yards on the ground per game last season. Ellerbe will need to improve that facet of his game to be worth the money coming his way in 2014.
9 Jermon Bushrod - LT - Chicago Bears: $3.015 million in 2013
The offensive line of the Bears has seemingly been somewhere between “meh” and awful as long as quarterback Jay Cutler has been with the team. Bushrod was supposed to help change that. While he was an improvement over what the Bears had in the past, he did surrender four sacks and nine QB hits in 2013.
Bushrod has, in the past, proven that he can be an All-Pro. He is still theoretically in the prime of his career, and the hope is that he'll be more comfortable in the Chicago offense in his second season. Bushrod's cap number goes up by over $4 million next season.
8 Mike Wallace - WR - Miami Dolphins: $3.25 million in 2013
Wallace got off to a slow start at Miami minus his outstanding performance against the Indianapolis Colts on September 15. He eventually settled in with his new club, and he finished the campaign with 73 catches, 930 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Those are fine figures for a player with a decent cap number.
Two things should be pointed out when reviewing this signing. Brian Hartline, who had a cap number of $2.115 million in 2013, had more catches (76) and receiving yards (1,016) than did Wallace. Wallace's cap hit skyrockets up to $17.25 million for this coming season. Miami will be wanting, or even demanding, that Wallace produces stats worthy of such a massive deal starting in 2014.
7 Gosder Cherilus - OT - Indianapolis Colts: $3.9 million in 2013
Of all of the players mentioned in this piece, Cherilus could be the most “ask me in a couple of years” man of them all. A cap hit of $3.9 million for a reliable and good offensive lineman such as Cherilus is decent value. That number doesn't go up in 2014.
His cap number rises to $6.9 million in 2015, so the Colts still have plenty of time to evaluate the player. Cherilus will turn 30 years old in June.
6 Jared Cook - TE - St. Louis Rams: $4 million in 2013
Cook was just outside of the top ten in highest cap numbers among tight ends in 2013, and he played like a middle-of-the-road TE for much of the season. 15 players at the position had more receptions than did Cook (51). To his credit, he did have five touchdowns, the most he has had in a single season.
Cook's 2013 campaign is an example of somebody technically not playing up to his contract being something that isn't all that big of a deal. His cap number does rise by $3 million next season, and it goes up by another $1 million in 2015. The Rams will be hoping for more from the TE who turns 27 years old in April, and for all we know, he may very well deliver.
5 Andy Levitre - LG - Tennessee Titans: $4.6 million in 2013
Nobody ever denied last year that the Titans needed help on their offensive line. That Tennessee gave Levitre, a player who hasn't earned anything outside of a spot on the NFL All-Rookie Team back in 2009, such a massive contract boggled the minds of some analysts.
Those doubters weren't proven wrong by Levitre's play.
Levitre's cap number goes up $4 million next year. Him being just good or “serviceable” isn't going to cut it. Simply stated, Tennessee will need Levitre to play like an All-Pro guard next year and for years to come.
4 Jake Long - LT - St. Louis Rams: $4.25 million in 2013
Long was supposed to be a cornerstone of an offensive line that was always likely to be even further bolstered in the 2014 NFL Draft. Then, with the Rams eliminated from playoff contention, Long tore both his ACL and MCL in late December. He had to wait over a month for the swelling to go down before he could have surgery on his right knee, and his status for the start of the 2014 regular season is unknown.
Losing a starter like Long when you're only playing for pride is a cruel blow for a team. The Rams will be praying to the football gods that the tackle is ready to go in Week 1, and not just because of his talent. Long's cap number goes up by $5 million next season.
3 Greg Jennings - WR - Minnesota Vikings: $5 million in 2013
Jennings broke the hearts of Green Bay Packers fans everywhere when he inked a deal with the Vikings last offseason. The 30-year-old veteran of eight NFL seasons led Minnesota in catches (68) and in receiving yards (804) during his first season with his new club. He also found the end zone on four occasions.
It's difficult to adequately rate this signing because the passing attack of the Vikes was downright dreadful at times last season. Minnesota could be drafting a quarterback in the first round comes this May, and the team's offense will experience somewhat of a reboot under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Jennings is expected to play a significant role in the Vikings hopefully turning things around next fall.
2 Paul Kruger - LB - Cleveland Browns: $8.2 million in 2013
Dud. Bust. Failure. Any of these words could be used to describe Kruger's first season in Cleveland. The big free agency signing of the Browns had his most disappointing year since 2010, accumulating 47 tackles and only 4.5 sacks. When you consider how much money he made and also how well other members of the Cleveland defense played throughout the campaign, Kruger was nothing shy of a letdown.
Kruger's cap hit stays at $8.2 million up through the end of the 2015 season. Cleveland wouldn't save a ton of money by cutting ties with the LB at any point over the next couple of years, and thus the Browns will need the Kruger to find the form that he enjoyed while with the Baltimore Ravens.
1 Dashon Goldson - S - Tampa Bay Buccaneers: $8,735,294 in 2013
Tampa Bay made what appeared to be multiple smart free agent moves last offseason, acquiring both Goldson and Darrelle Revis. Then, the Bucs opened the season with eight consecutive losses, they ended the year with a 4-12 record, head coach Greg Schiano was fired, and Tampa Bay now does not have a ton of cap money to spend this spring.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers, who had no problem with not paying Goldson, nearly made it to the Super Bowl last January.
Goldson didn't have a terrible campaign. He had 71 tackles, his most in a single season since 2010. That said, Goldson is paid to be the best in the business, and the fact of the matter is that he wasn't.