Thursday, August 11, 2011

NFL Teams Going After Rival's Free Agents Like Never Before

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In the modern era of NFL free agency, it has become commonplace to move from one location to the next. It's also becoming an industry trend for players to leave their old teams to sign with their biggest rivals.

Case in point: Ex-Giant Steve Smith signed with the Eagles yesterday. Smith says the Eagles wanted him more, which is just as much about him spiting the Giants for not showing serious interest in bringing him back than it is about Philadelphia wanting him.

This also isn't the first example of a New York player going to his former team's biggest rival this offseason. Former Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis, an 11-year veteran who was drafted by New York in 2000, took a similar path last week when he signed a one-year contract with the Patriots.

While Smith is in the prime of his career, Ellis is nothing more than a rotational lineman at age 34. Both players will have an impact on their new teams, but let's start with Smith.

From the Giants point of view, I understand. They have a budding superstar in Hakeem Nicks and a former third wide receiver in Mario Manningham who looks primed to breakout and become a solid No. 2. Smith is also a question mark thanks to microfracture knee surgery.

They drafted Ramses Barden last season and have guys like Domenik Hixon and last year's pre-season standout Victor Cruz, so it's not like the Giants don't have a few guys vying for playing time. Regardless, Eli Manning is going to miss Smith.

Manning has proven to be turnover-prone throughout his career, throwing at least 17 interceptions in four of his six seasons as a full-time starter. He threw a career-high 25 last season, which I believe to be a direct result of Smith's injury issues.

In the first eight games of the season, in which Smith caught at least four passes in all eight, Manning threw 11 interceptions. In the final eight games, where Smith played in just one game and caught only one ball, Manning threw 14 interceptions, a rise almost half an interception per game.

Manning had just one game without an interception during the season's second half; he had three such games with Smith in the lineup.

The Eagles recognized this and also saw the value in signing Smith for cheap (yes, $4 million is cheap for a Pro Bowl-caliber player). They are deep at receiver even if Jeremy Maclin's personal issues take him into the regular season and can afford to wait a few weeks while Smith gets healthy.

Even if Smith doesn't return at a high level, the Eagles will take advantage of his absence when they play the Giants. With a revamped secondary and Jason Babin added to rush the passer, Manning will struggle against Philadelphia without his favorite security blanket.

Nicks and Manningham are big-play receivers and neither can replace what Smith did for the Giants. Manning's receiving options look limited this season, especially with Kevin Boss' departure - although I like Travis Beckum.

Smith should have a larger impact on the field in Philadelphia than Ellis in New England, but the former Jet will help Bill Belichick in many other ways.

Ellis knows the Jets organization in and out, especially their defensive schemes over the past few seasons under Rex Ryan. Like Smith, he didn't feel wanted by the organization and will likely be looking to spite the Jets.

What Ellis can't do on the field anymore, he will likely do in the film room and on the sidelines. He knows the defense, he knows the players he will be lining up against and he knows how to beat them.

Whether he can do it himself anymore, Ellis will help everybody else along the New England line when it comes to playing against New York.

He won't make the on-field impact that Jets castoff Danny Woodhead made when he signed with New England early last season, but don't think he won't be an asset to the Pats. Bill Belichick wouldn't have signed Ellis if he didn't think he would help in some way.

It's too early to tell what will happen when the Jets and Pats square off and the same goes for the Giants and Eagles. But the defection of Smith and Ellis to bitter division rivals sways the pendulum slightly towards Philadelphia and New England. At least for now.

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