By BARRY WILNER
AP Pro Football Writer
The Miami Dolphins need to put folks in the seats. The Cleveland Browns have a new owner. Chicago is chasing two teams in the NFC North and is coming off consecutive collapses.
That, in part, explains why those teams led the early spending charge in free agency. Whether they are getting their money’s worth is another question.
Free agency can be a dangerously expensive game. The Redskins can testify to that after their flop with Albert Haynesworth.
It also can provide the boost toward a Super Bowl, or in the case of the Dolphins and Browns, opening the checkbooks can quiet the critics. At least for a while.
Miami has been the big player so far, doling out three monstrous contracts. Wide receiver Mike Wallace got $60 million over five years, half of it guaranteed, to be the big-play threat the Dolphins are missing.
Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe picked a perfect time to play his best football, helping Baltimore win the Super Bowl. He signed a $34.75 million contract with $14 million guaranteed.
“Everybody wants a challenge,” Ellerbe said. “It’s about coming down here where people want you, and they show you that they love you. I just want to come down here and make a difference and make an impact.”
Phillip Wheeler left Oakland and signed a $26 million deal that includes a $7 million signing bonus and $13 million guaranteed.
Yes, the Dolphins figure to have improved in a division where no one appears ready to challenge New England. But there were other motives to owner Stephen Ross’ beneficence: all those empty seats at home games.
Ross must be figuring that more wide-open offense and some new faces on defense will attract some attention — at least until the Heat get going again next season.
And get this: The Dolphins still are about $20 million under the salary cap.
Cleveland’s big splash makes sense simply because new owner Jimmy Haslam wants to immediately make his mark in the AFC North, if not in the entire league. Haslam’s first big player transaction was to rob the Super Bowl champions of their top sacker, linebacker Paul Kruger.
Kruger knocked down quarterbacks nine times last season, then 4 1/2 more times in the postseason. Before that — before his contract year — he had 6 1/2 sacks and was a part-time player.
Still, Kruger is better at threatening passers than anyone else the Browns had at the position.
“We talked early on when I first got the job about wanting an attacking style of defense and to find the personnel that embodies that,” coach Rob Chudzinski said. “I think Paul is the perfect example of that type of player. He’s a relentless guy, high motor, a very physical player and plays with a passion that you love to watch and see players play with.”
Cleveland also brought in lineman Desmond Bryant and linebacker Quentin Groves — for a lot less money — to aid the defense. Those are the kind of players who usually remain on the market for a while.
But not when the new guy in the NFL wants to make an impact.
“You usually have this kind of churn through the first day with the higher-priced, better-known players, then it gradually works its way down,” Browns President Joe Banner said. “But you are already seeing players all the way down to minimum salary players signing, so you have to be ready to move quickly.”
The Bears have to move quickly just to keep up in their division, where they not only are looking up at Green Bay and Minnesota, but behind them at Detroit, which might have solved its running back problems by grabbing Reggie Bush.
Chicago added tight end Martellus Bennett to give Jay Cutler a more reliable option at that position; wonder if they wish they never let Greg Olsen leave?
The Bears gave Bennett $20 million over four years, a tidy sum for a tight end. And Jermon Bushrod got almost $36 million over five years, one of the richest contracts in franchise history.
And the Bears still have to find money for Brian Urlacher — if they are so inclined.
“We are up against the cap,” general manager Phil Emery said. “So, we are going to have to be very slow and methodical and make sure that every decision that we make is going to be in the best interest of our team moving forward in terms of putting the best players on the field to win. It is going to have to be slow because every dollar is going to count against the cap and we are up tight against the cap.”
Which is what happens when teams dive into free agency so quickly.