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Chad Pemberton: Free agents more reliable than guesswork of draft

Apr. 20, 2013 @ 12:19 AM

It's been a while since we've sank our teeth into the thick, juicy meat of a Sunday full of NFL games. So plump and full we once were, but no more. This is the dog days of the NFL. So we pillage through the off-season scraps -- terrible teams signing mostly terrible quarterbacks, franchise legends taking their diminishing talents elsewhere, Mel Kiper Jr. releasing his 500th mock draft -- and we follow all of this, partly because we're more like Patton Oswalt's character in Big Fan than we'll ever have the courage to admit, but more so because free agency is often where the trajectory of franchises are dictated.

The NFL Draft, for all of the lore and coverage that's attached to it, is pretty much a crapshoot. This seems particularly true this year, when the consensus surrounding next week's draft is that the only "Can't Miss" prospect is still in college -- South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney.

History says collegiate success, interviews, and combine performances aren't the most accurate barometers for future success in the NFL. I'm not saying the outcome of a draft is complete luck (although it kind of is), but it's definitely not a science either. Each team tries to use their best judgment, but there's simply no single, determinable quality that guarantees success in the NFL for any position or prospect. Teams are making very important decisions about NFL prospects with a relatively limited amount of information.

Free agency, however, is pretty much the opposite of that, which is why savvy free agent signings can be so important for a team's short- and long-term success. So, without further ado, and before all of us begin having impossible arguments about players who have never played a down of professional football, let's take a look at several teams that made smart moves in free agency.

Denver Broncos: Everyone assumes the coup of free agency was Denver signing Wes Welker to a two-year, $12 million contract -- I assume the video of Peyton Manning and Wes Welker working out at Duke University is a reoccurring nightmare for Tom Brady at this point -- but the franchise tag they put on offensive tackle Ryan Clady is equally important.

Clady tore his patellar tendon before the 2010 season, and although he didn't miss any time, it took him two years to get back to full form. Finally, though, he was back to his dominant self in 2012, only surrendering one sack while protecting Peyton Manning's blind side, you know, something that's kind of important for a quarterback with four neck surgeries.

Seattle Seahawks: One of the NFL's best defenses inked a couple of burgeoning defenders at a great price proposition -- Michael Bennett (one-year, $4.8 million contract) and Cliff Avril (two-years, $13 million contract). Both defensive ends are 27 years old and coming off of quality performances in 2012.

Bennett had a career-high in sacks (nine), while carrying the load with a torn rotator cuff (an injury that still persists) on Tampa Bay's defensive-line, a group that was one of the best against the run, largely because of Bennett's unique mixture of power and finesse, but they were downright abysmal at sacking the quarterback, in spite of Bennett's nine sacks, ranking 31st in Adjusted Sack Rate (4.9 percent), a stat which gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt, adjusted for down, distance, and opponent).

Similarly, Avril registered 9.5 sacks on Detroit's defensive line, a unit that was also one of the best against the run, but also failed to reach the quarterback at a high rate, ranking 29th in Adjusted Sack Rate (5.0 percent); Avril's 29 sacks over the past three seasons ranks just inside the top 15 during that span.

So, for those keeping track, Seattle will roll out a defense with Bennett, Avril, Chris Clemons, and Bruce Irvin in 2013. The only quarterbacks who are safe are the ones not playing the Seahawks.

Chad Pemberton is a Marshall University graduate who follows the NFL and is writing about it for The Herald-Dispatch. Email him at pemberton@herald-dispatch.com.



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