Free agency rewind: The good, the bad, the ugly

Ad Pro Test Clip 22 - March 2017 (1:18)

Ad Pro Test Clip 22 - March 2017 (1:18)

We're nearly one month into the NFL's 2016 free-agent market, a nice round number that demands the ceremonial tying of a bow. Most everything that will happen has already happened -- I think I read that on BrainyQuotes somewhere -- and now is a perfect time to take stock before the football world turns its full attention to the draft.

Behold …

Best signings

The most effective free-agent signings usually aren't for big money or for major names. Each year, a handful of teams get good value for an imperfect player who will fill a specified role.

I love the chances of running back Matt Forte ($5 million in 2016) catching 80-plus passes for the New York Jets. Receiver Chris Hogan ($5.5 million) could do the same for the New England Patriots. Cornerback Sean Smith ($11 million) is a ball hawk who will benefit from the Oakland Raiders' pass rush. And guard Alex Boone ($6.7 million) will help transform the Minnesota Vikings' offensive line.

Fattest contracts

OK, fine. You want to know who cashed in this spring. Here's the top of the list, based on guaranteed money:

1. New York Giants pass-rusher Olivier Vernon: $52.5 million

2. Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Malik Jackson: $42 million

3. Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler: $37 million

4. New York Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins: $28.8 million

5. Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack: $28.5 million

What were they thinking?

Now for the fun part.

The Giants will pay defensive tackle Damon Harrison $13 million this season as another part of their haul. They gave him $24 million in total guarantees. A minor quibble: Harrison is a great run-stopper who usually leaves the field in passing situations. So he plays about half of available snaps (1,011 of 1,989 over the past two years). That's a lot of money for a part-time player, especially with a deep draft that will produce starting nose tackles into the middle rounds.

And the Miami Dolphins made a few head-scratching moves. They managed to age and diminishe their defensive line by allowing Vernon (25) to depart and signing Mario Williams (31). It's also difficult to understand what they see in cornerback Byron Maxwell, whose disastrous 2015 with the Philadelphia Eagles somehow merited a trade and a guaranteed $8.5 million in 2016. It makes you wonder if the Dolphins have saddled new coach Adam Gase with a black-hole roster.

Biggest spenders

A total of 470 players have signed contracts since the opening of the market. Those players were guaranteed $944 million in some form, according to figures compiled by ESPN Stats & Information.

Seven teams issued at least $50 million in guarantees: The Giants, Jaguars, Texans, Raiders, Eagles, Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Jaguars and Raiders, at least, were prompted by an NFL rule that requires teams to spend at least 89 percent of the salary cap in cash over a four-year period.

The rest of them? History says they wasted their money. Per ESPN Stats & Information, 13 of the 15 top-spending teams in free agency since 2011 have not made the playoffs the following season.

Thriftiest customers

The Buffalo Bills cut every corner imaginable just to get under the $155.27 million salary cap, so it's no surprise that they've guaranteed just $160,000 in the current league year.

The Carolina Panthers are next at $3.76 million in guarantees, followed closely by the Green Bay Packers at $3.825 million. The Panthers and Packers -- who have a combined 44 regular-season wins between them in the past two seasons -- usually know what they're doing.

This move makes too much sense

Quietly last week, the Packers signed Jared Cook -- a 6-foot-5, 254-pound tight end who once ran the 40-yard dash in a stunning 4.49 seconds. Everything about Cook screams major offensive weapon.

So why has he averaged 39 catches, 500 yards and two touchdowns per season in his first seven NFL years? Try a list of 11 quarterbacks he has played with, topped by Matt Hasselbeck (the Tennessee Titans version). It bottoms out with Vince Young, Case Keenum and Nick Foles.

Pairing Cook with quarterback Aaron Rodgers should bring the Packers' offense back to its heyday of the early 2010s, when Rodgers and now-retired tight end Jermichael Finley were taxing defenses in a way only a handful of combinations in the league could. Added bonus for the Packers: Their typical free agency reticence was rewarded in this case; the deal guarantees Cook $825,000 and will pay him a maximum of $3.65 million only if he earns all available incentives.

Biggest leap of faith

The Houston Texans will know more about their seventh-round draft pick later this month than they do about quarterback Brock Osweiler, whom they guaranteed $37 million on the first day of free agency.

Osweiler is an intriguing, strong-armed prospect, but he has started only seven NFL games and the team that knows him best -- the Denver Broncos -- refused to throw open their financial coffers to keep him. Because of NFL rules, the Texans weren't allowed to speak directly with Osweiler during the early negotiating process. Coach Bill O'Brien didn't meet him until he arrived in Houston for an introductory news conference.

The state of quarterbacking in the NFL meant someone would take a chance on Osweiler. It turned out to be the Texans. But if anyone tells you they know how this will turn out, they're lying.

Most depressing match

Quarterback Robert Griffin III's fall from national darling to NFL outcast was complete when the only franchise with real interest turned out to be … the Factory of Sadness.

The Cleveland Browns, backed by the enthusiasm of new coach Hue Jackson, wanted Griffin badly enough to pay him far more than they needed to ($7.5 million in 2016). Griffin will try to rehabilitate his career -- and, many would say, learn how to operate a pro offense -- amid a roster that appears to be undergoing a complete teardown.

Since the start of this decade, the Browns are 25-55 and have the second-worst winning percentage (.313) in the league. They've allowed eight players from their 2015 roster to sign elsewhere, including Mack and receiver Travis Benjamin, and haven't replaced them with much. Good luck to RG III -- and anyone else who tries to quarterback that team.

Most glaring unfilled holes

Neither the New York Jets nor the Broncos have a starting quarterback. That's a problem.

The Jets have been in a contract standoff with Ryan Fitzpatrick, who led them to 10 wins last season but is 33 and the definition of a journeyman. The Broncos, as we noted earlier, lost Osweiler to the Texans and also bid farewell to the retired Peyton Manning. Trade discussions with the San Francisco 49ers for Colin Kaepernick appear to be on hold, so for the moment, the Broncos' starter is Mark Sanchez. Yikes.

The Chicago Bears haven't found a replacement for Forte, the Dallas Cowboys suspiciously don't have a backup yet for quarterback Tony Romo, and it's still hard to believe the Los Angeles Rams' insistence that Keenum is their starting quarterback.

Unsigned players you've heard of

There are still a few names out there.

We've mentioned Fitzpatrick. Former Texans running back Arian Foster, recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, has visited the Dolphins but has no deal yet. Safety Reggie Nelson remains unsigned, although he's taking a visit this week with the Raiders.

Pass-rusher Dwight Freeney, who gave the Arizona Cardinals eight sacks in 11 games over just 245 snaps last season, is still available. So is pass-rusher Greg Hardy, whose personal history has led teams to keep their distance.