NFL free agency is underway, so let the grades and analysis of notable deals begin.
Each year in this space, I run through every significant free-agent signing and trade across the first two months of the NFL offseason. I hand out a grade for each move from the team’s perspective. The grade tries to estimate a player’s chance of outplaying the contract he signed, given his history and the track record of similar players, as well as whether the team could have used the money more wisely, given its situation. To say it is an inexact science would be an affront to science.
Grades come in as ESPN confirms various deals, and they’re subject to change later in March as we find out more specifics about the structure of contracts and what is and is not guaranteed. Check out my nine favorite free-agent signings here.
Jump to an interesting deal:
How Tom Brady fits with the Bucs
Teddy B is a great fit for Carolina
Why Philip Rivers is an upgrade
Stefon Diggs trade is a win-win
Jimmy Graham? At age 33?
Why the 49ers won their trade
Vikings are all-in on Kirk Cousins
Bill O’Brien and the Texans did what?!
Did the Browns overpay for a TE?
Ryan Tannehill got how much?
Saturday, March 28
The deal: Three years, $31.5 million
Brockers, of course, had agreed to a deal with the Ravens before Baltimore didn’t like what it saw in the LSU product’s physical and retracted its deal. Presented with an opportunity to bring back their former first-round pick, the Rams used some of the cap space they cleared out when they cut Todd Gurley and Clay Matthews by inking Brockers to a three-year pact worth a maximum of $31.5 million. It’s not clear how much is guaranteed, but it’s unlikely Brockers will have more than $21 million of the deal in guarantees, which was reportedly the case with his Ravens contract.
I would have been more excited about this deal if the Rams had signed Brockers to it at the beginning of free agency, because they used some of their cap space in the meantime to sign Leonard Floyd and A’Shawn Robinson. Brockers completes the foursome and will move back to his combo role of playing defensive end on early downs and tackle in passing situations, but I wonder whether this team has committed too much of the limited room it has to its starting defensive linemen. The Rams are crying out for help at linebacker, along the offensive line, and depth just about anywhere on the defensive side of the ball. Brockers is a good player, and the Rams ended up getting a fair price, but he made more sense at the beginning of March than he does now.
The deal: One year, $6 million
Signed as the replacement for Brockers, Ravens fans might be even more excited about Wolfe than they were about the Rams stalwart. Wolfe had seven sacks in 12 games for the Broncos last season and comes at a fraction of both the cost and commitment of Brockers. At his best, Wolfe can be a disruptive force as a 3-4 defensive end and can create havoc coming off of twists; it’s easy to imagine him tying up linemen to create pass-rushing opportunities for Matthew Judon.
When you look into why Wolfe was so much cheaper than Brockers, you see why the Ravens preferred the former before his physical. Wolfe is a year older than Brockers, and injuries have been a consistent nuisance for the 30-year-old, who has missed 20 games and most of five others over the past seven years with various ailments. Brockers has missed a total of two games over that time frame. Brockers is also a better run defender, which is going to be where the Ravens will need Wolfe (or would have needed Brockers) most. Wolfe is a reasonable Plan B given the circumstances, and this is a low-risk deal.
The deal: One year, $3.1 million
In February, I wrote about why the Broncos should have let Harris leave if the reported interest in their defensive tackle at a rate of more than $10 million per season was accurate. Well, it wasn’t accurate.
Harris was solid, especially after the Broncos used more Mike Purcell at nose tackle and let Harris play defensive end, but his six sacks was not representative of his true pass-rushing ability. In the end, the Broncos got a fair price for Harris, who will get a chance to prove he’s worth that long-term deal in a second season under Vic Fangio.
The deal: One year, $3.8 million
The Cardinals traded for Gilbert a year ago, only for the longtime Steelers tackle to miss all of 2019 with a torn ACL. Arizona got by with swing tackle Justin Murray on the right side and brought back Murray for another season, but I figured it would try to upgrade that spot. I didn’t think it would be with Gilbert, who seemed more likely to retire.
After missing 36 of the past 48 possible games, Gilbert isn’t likely to be able to hold up to the grind of an NFL season. The money here isn’t onerous, particularly if it’s not fully guaranteed, but the Cardinals shouldn’t be putting themselves in a situation where they’re projecting Gilbert to start.
Wednesday, March 25
The deal: One year, $8 million
Although Suh has seemed content to wander the league on a series of one-year deals since he left the Dolphins after the 2017 season, the Bucs saw enough from the five-time Pro Bowler last season to keep him around for another season. Suh didn’t dominate as a pass-rusher, but his alliance with wildly underrated tackle Vita Vea was the biggest reason the Bucs improved from 31st in rush defense DVOA in 2018 to the league’s top rush defense this past campaign.
Suh also brings an underrated asset to the table: availability. The 33-year-old has never missed a game due to injury and has appeared on the injury report only three times in 10 seasons. The Bucs can feel confident that Suh is going to show up and play about 875 defensive snaps at a high level, which is not the case for a majority of free-agent signings. Tampa still has about $16 million in cap room to play with and should continue to attract veterans who want to get one final run with Tom Brady.
The deal: One year, $1 million
Robey-Coleman is always going to be synonymous with that play against the Saints, but he has been an above-average slot cornerback in his time with the Bills and Rams. Los Angeles declined his option in order to create cap space, but at this price, I’m surprised the Rams weren’t able to bring him back for another season.
This is an easy victory for the Eagles, who have upgraded two of their three cornerback slots by signing Robey-Coleman and trading for Darius Slay. The slot cornerback market seemed to take off in 2019, when guys such as Bryce Callahan, Justin Coleman and Tavon Young were able to sign significant multiyear deals, but with Brian Poole and Robey-Coleman each taking a one-year deal for modest money, things appear to have swung in the other direction.
Tuesday, March 24
The deal: One year, $6 million
The Jets found their replacement for Robby Anderson by striking a one-year deal with Perriman, who averaged nearly 18 yards per catch as Tampa’s third wideout last season. Perriman’s December hinted at more, as the former Ravens first-rounder took advantage of injuries to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to rack up 506 receiving yards, which was third in the NFL to Tyler Higbee and DeVante Parker over that time frame. Perriman finished the regular season with three consecutive 100-yard games, his first time doing so as a pro.
While Jets fans might be looking at Perriman’s end to the season and wondering how they got a superstar wide receiver for just over half of what Anderson got from the Panthers, I’ll push back a bit. To start, those three consecutive 100-yard games came against three of the worst pass defenses in football: the Lions (who ranked 29th in pass defense DVOA), Texans (26th) and Falcons (25th). And while Jameis Winston certainly has his weaknesses, he proved to be an effective deep passer during his time under Bruce Arians. Sam Darnold ranks 35th in passer rating and 32nd in Total QBR on deep passes over the past two seasons with the Jets, and the offensive line moves the organization has made this offseason don’t lead me to believe Darnold will have much time for his receivers to get open in 2020.
New York general manager Joe Douglas did need to start finding weapons for Darnold, though, and while I would expect the Jets to target a wide receiver with one of their four top-80 picks in April’s draft, Perriman is a viable deep burner with upside. Credit the Jets for waiting out the market and getting a guy who looked like he had played his way into a bigger deal for a modest, one-year commitment.
The deal: Two years, $20 million
Mr. December seems to get better as the season goes along, as Anderson has gone from averaging 30.9 receiving yards per game in September to 62.4 yards per game in the final month of the season. After Anderson spent four seasons in New York with four different offensive coordinators while catching passes from six different quarterbacks, the Panthers hope that a more stable combination of offensive coordinator and quarterback could get the wide receiver feeling comfortable before Thanksgiving. Anderson will see a couple of familiar faces in Carolina from his days at Temple — coach Matt Rhule and quarterback P.J. Walker.
I would think of Anderson as a much healthier but less effective DeSean Jackson. On pass plays, Anderson’s average max speed hit 15.01 miles per hour, which was the 12th-fastest mark for any wideout in football and right alongside players like Tyreek Hill, Ted Ginn and Marquise Brown. That can be a product of the routes each player is running, but route trees are going to naturally select for speed, and as you can see from Anderson’s catch grid, last season saw the Temple product work the middle of the field far more frequently. In 2018, just 28% of his catches came between the numbers. In 2019, that number jumped to 48%. Anderson is always going to be at his best stretching teams vertically, but if he can threaten teams over the middle of the field, that’s going to add significant value.
Anderson was the most appealing wide receiver in this free-agent crop, but with a deep draft class of wide receivers coming in April, his market was softer than expected. I thought he might end up as an overpay from a team paying him like a No. 1 or 1A receiver, but this isn’t quite at that level. He has nominally been the Jets’ No. 1 wideout for stretches over the last two seasons, but he’s not going to get the sort of workload to support that usage rate in Carolina. With the Panthers likely able to get out of this deal after one year and $12 million, there’s not a ton of risk, though they’ll likely lose the fourth-round compensatory pick they were projected to receive for Mario Addison as a result of this signing.
This is an interesting move from the Panthers, who are in the middle of what looks to be a rebuild and weren’t really in need of another receiver with DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel and Christian McCaffrey combining for 382 targets last season. The oft-injured Samuel is the most likely to suffer with the addition of Anderson; it’s not impossible to imagine the Panthers shopping Samuel as a result of this deal.
Monday, March 23
Seahawks grade: B+
Washington grade: D+
After successfully snatching safety Quandre Diggs off the Lions’ roster last season, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have made another low-cost, high-upside addition by sending a fifth-round pick to Washington for its former starting cornerback. Dunbar was one of the few reasons to turn on Washington tape last season; quarterbacks posted a passer rating of 68.4 with Dunbar in coverage, the 14th-best mark in the league for cornerbacks who were targeted at least 30 times. Dunbar also has the athleticism to play either outside or in the slot, which is an added bonus.
Dunbar almost always stuck on the right side of the defense, which is where the Seahawks typically lined up Tre Flowers last season. Flowers struggled, and it would hardly be surprising if Dunbar took over as the starter by the end of training camp. Carroll is regarded as one of the best defensive back coaches in the league, so it wouldn’t be wrong to think that Dunbar could get even better while under Carroll’s wing. At 27, the Florida product should be entering his peak.
The only reason this isn’t an even bigger win for the Seahawks is because of what happens with Dunbar’s contract, which is why he initially requested a trade from Washington. He has one year left on his deal, at $3.3 million, which is a significant bargain. I would expect the Seahawks to at least consider giving him an extension, and though I think he could flourish in Seattle, 2019 was really the only season in which he has played at that high of a level. Extension or no extension, this is an easy win for the Seahawks, and it’s a surprise that Washington wasn’t able to get more for a young, emerging cornerback.
The deal: One year, $6 million
Adding to an embarrassment of riches for the Ravens in the secondary, Smith will return to his only NFL team for a 10th professional season. Injuries have consistently limited Smith, who has played just one 16-game season in his past six tries. In 2019, an MCL sprain cost him six games, with a groin injury in December adding a seventh absence. In the past, with him being one of the highest-paid players on the team, Smith’s injuries really hurt the Ravens.
Now, if Baltimore can get 12 games out of Smith, the team will be happy. He’ll likely be the Ravens’ nickel or dime defensive back, with Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young ahead of him on the depth chart. With the Ravens declining Brandon Carr‘s option, I wonder if they will try Smith in the hybrid cornerback/safety role that Carr played for the team last season. In either case, Smith will represent valuable depth for a team that is enjoying the benefits of having a league MVP in Lamar Jackson whose cap hit is narrowly more than $2.5 million in 2020.
The deal: Two years, $17.6 million
Mariota’s contract is high-end backup money, which should be telling in terms of what the Raiders are thinking. He is basically on a one-year, $7.5 million fully guaranteed deal with incentives in 2020. The Raiders were able to negotiate a second year at $10 million, which will help avoid a Ryan Tannehill-sized contract if Mariota follows in the footsteps of his former backup and breaks out in his new digs.
Of course, Mariota can’t break out unless he gets an opportunity. Tannehill was a more likely candidate to get on the field in 2019 than Mariota is this season. For one, Mariota’s position with the Titans at this time a year ago was far more tenuous than Derek Carr‘s current status with the Raiders. Mariota’s injury history also made it exceedingly likely Tannehill would see the field, while Carr has only missed two games in six seasons.
At the same time, the money in this deal suggests Las Vegas sees Mariota as someone they expect to seriously compete for an opportunity and have a shot at winning the job in 2020. Jon Gruden once called the former Oregon signal-caller a “6-foot-4 Russell Wilson.” I wonder if Gruden sees an opportunity to incorporate a more diverse run game and more opportunities off play-action by adding Mariota.
The problem is that Mariota simply hasn’t been good for any lengthy stretch of time, and expecting him to turn into the next Tannehill in 2020 would be relying on the exception to become the rule. Carr dramatically outplayed Mariota in 2019, and outside of added mobility, Mariota’s skill set isn’t vastly superior to that of Carr’s. Mariota throws the ball deeper than Carr, but he also takes sacks at an astronomical rate. It wouldn’t shock me to see Mariota start at one point for the Raiders in 2020 if Gruden gets bored with the quarterback he has, but it would take something totally unexpected for Mariota to earn a long-term contract with the franchise next offseason.
Panthers grade: B-
Washington grade: C
This trade might be bigger news for the players who aren’t involved. By dealing for Allen, Washington coach Ron Rivera seems to be closing the door on acquiring Cam Newton, his other former quarterback in Carolina. It also makes me think that Washington isn’t expecting Alex Smith to play as he continues to recover from multiple leg surgeries. On top of all that, it suggests that new Panthers coach Matt Rhule has faith in Will Grier or newly signed XFL star P.J. Walker to be the primary backup in Carolina once the team releases Newton, which should be any day now.
The trade itself isn’t exciting. Allen rode an interception-free streak at the beginning of his run with the Panthers to attract some silly short-term comparisons, then he threw 16 interceptions over his final nine games. His fumble and sack rates also were worse than league-average. His specialty was the megasack; Allen took a league-high 18 sacks of 10 yards or more. The Houston product profiles as a lower-end backup quarterback, and he won’t offer much relief if Dwayne Haskins gets injured.
I don’t like giving up draft picks for players of that caliber when another way to grab one is to sign him from a lower league. Rhule is quite familiar with Walker, who started every one of his 28 wins while the two were at Temple. The XFL didn’t name an MVP for their abbreviated season, but Walker would have been the popular pick after throwing 15 touchdowns against just four interceptions. The Panthers will likely carry both Grier and Walker on their roster in 2020, but the order in which they sit behind Teddy Bridgewater will likely depend on a preseason competition.
Sunday, March 22
The deal: One year, $2 million
Could this be the Patriots’ new starting quarterback? New England cut Hoyer in camp last year to keep Jarrett Stidham as its backup to Tom Brady; now, with Brady in Tampa, Hoyer appears to be in a competition with Stidham to replace the future Hall of Famer.
I’m skeptical the Patriots intend to go into the regular season with Hoyer, Stidham and Cody Kessler as their quarterback options. The $2 million deal Hoyer signed doesn’t preclude the Patriots from adding somebody else, and while they don’t have a lot of cap space, they can trade guard Joe Thuney or restructure a number of deals to create room.
They’re not in a rush to add a more significant quarterback such as Andy Dalton, Cam Newton or Jameis Winston, because there are no teams out there to compete with them for a veteran passer. Who else around the league has an opening? There are a few teams such as the Bengals and Titans that have pure backup jobs available, but in terms of viable paths to a possible starting opportunity? Brady took the last starting job in the NFC, although Washington could try to challenge Dwayne Haskins. The Chargers have suggested they don’t plan on pursuing a veteran quarterback and are likely to draft a passer to compete with Tyrod Taylor. The market consists of the Patriots and maybe the Jaguars, who seem committed to giving Gardner Minshew a try.
Realistically, the Patriots have their pick of those three starters, so they can wait for Dalton and Newton to get cut. (Winston isn’t likely to be a fit with Bill Belichick.) It’s more likely that Hoyer and Stidham are competing to serve as the primary backup to whomever the Patriots do end up adding later in this window.
The 34-year-old Hoyer will be joining the Patriots for his third stint with the organization, but just 51 of his 1,477 career pass attempts have come with New England.
He doesn’t have NFL-caliber accuracy; take a look at the interception he threw in the preseason to Logan Ryan, which was the second-most notable pick Ryan made against his former team in 2019. The Patriots are running a scissors-route combination and get the clear-out they want. Hoyer has the entire sideline to miss toward and still throws the ball behind his receiver, allowing Ryan to catch up for an interception. Hoyer has a sub-60% completion percentage as a pro, and though the Patriots might prefer him to Stidham in a pinch, I refuse to believe Hoyer is the final answer for the Pats.
The deal: Three years, $28.5 million
The 49ers are trying to bring back as many pieces as possible from their 2019 breakout defensive campaign, short the traded DeForest Buckner. It’s no surprise they wanted to dial up Ward, who served as their starting free safety. Ward has always been a willing run supporter, but the Niners might have kept him deep last season in part to keep their former first-round pick healthy. And it worked: After breaking his collarbone in May and missing the first three weeks of the season, Ward was active for the remainder of the regular season and all three playoff games, the first time he has been able to play 16 games in a season since 2015.
I’d like to believe that Ward will stay healthy, but we’re looking at one year in six tries in which he was able to make it through a full 16-game campaign. When teams pay free agents market value expecting them to get healthy or stay healthy after a rare run of availability, it usually doesn’t work out well. San Francisco can get out of this deal after one year and $13.5 million in guarantees, but with $3.5 million of Ward’s $8.4 million base salary for 2021 guaranteed, this is likely a two-year, $19 million contract. I hope he is able to show off what he can do, but this is the sort of commitment teams usually regret.
The deal: Three years, $20.5 million
A move from the Texans where they don’t understand positional scarcity and overvalue a player who shouldn’t have had anywhere close to this sort of market? I don’t believe it, either. Murray carved out a role on the Chiefs as an excellent special-teamer who was overmatched when used as a regular safety. Kansas City mostly used him as a desperation option at free safety while Eric Berry and Daniel Sorensen were injured in 2018; but when Berry and Sorensen returned during the second half, Murray lost his job.
The Chiefs then traded Murray to the Browns for Emmanuel Ogbah, and though Murray stepped in while the Browns lost their entire starting secondary to injuries, he missed two months with a knee injury of his own, returning to regular action only in Week 17.
As a special-teamer coming off of a knee injury who profiles as an ideal fourth safety and a questionable third option, Murray’s market probably should have come in somewhere around one year and $2 million. The Texans, naturally, are giving him a three-year deal for more than $20 million. Even if just one year of this contract is guaranteed, the Texans misread or simply didn’t pay attention to the low-end safety market here.
The deal: One year, $4 million
The league just doesn’t seem very fond of Clinton-Dix, who now joins his fourth team in three years after Green Bay, Washington and Chicago all decided against offering him a long-term deal. Here, Clinton-Dix reunites with a former coach in Mike McCarthy, who should install Clinton-Dix as the starting free safety coming out of camp.
The Cowboys have struggled at the position for years, and this is a low-risk deal for a player who has — outside of his abbreviated run with Washington — generally been an above-average player. Serving as the primary defender in coverage isn’t often Clinton-Dix’s duty, but he has posted a sub-70 passer rating there in each of the past two seasons. The Bears did drop off against deep passes last season, but they were better over the middle of the field than they were against passes up the sidelines. Run defense has historically been Clinton-Dix’s weakness, but at this price, getting a solid defender against the pass makes sense for the Cowboys.
The deal: One year, $9.5 million
How much are you willing to believe in a few good games? Beasley, of course, led the league in 2016 with 15.5 sacks, but his 16 knockdowns and limited repertoire of pass-rush moves suggested regression was likely to come (6.5 of his sacks that season came against Paxton Lynch and a pre-Sean McVay Jared Goff). Beasley racked up a total of 11.5 sacks over the next 2½ years, but after November came around, he got back to work. During the second half of the season, Beasley had 6.5 sacks over his final eight games.
Again, though, his sacks came on just seven knockdowns. His first 2.5 sacks were clear coverage sacks. Three of the remaining 5.5 sacks came against Kyle Allen, who posted the worst sack rate in the league among quarterbacks with at least 300 attempts. Beasley still shows great burst and gets around the corner quickly, but there rarely seems to be a Plan B when he can’t beat his opposing man with speed.
He clearly has NFL athleticism, and I wonder whether a better defensive staff could unlock something more than what we’ve seen. The Titans have a former outside linebacker running things in Mike Vrabel, but even if Beasley does excel in 2020, the Titans don’t have any leverage in keeping him around. The Titans did need another edge rusher to play across from Harold Landry, and this isn’t an exorbitant sum in comparison to guys such as Dante Fowler Jr., but I’m not optimistic about Beasley turning things around.
The deal: Two years, $11 million
One of several offensive linemen the Seahawks added to their roster over the past week, Shell was an average to below-average right tackle for the Jets over the past three seasons. Last year was his worst as a pass protector, with the South Carolina product giving up seven sacks across 13 games’ worth of action. Shell is better as a run-blocker, though, and the Seahawks see him as a cheaper replacement for Germain Ifedi, who was always better as a run-blocker himself.
Shell won’t commit as many penalties as Ifedi, but to be fair, that also describes nearly every other player in football.
The deal: One year, $6 million
The Cardinals have already won the offseason with the DeAndre Hopkins trade, but this is an example of what not to do in free agency. Campbell has been a starring member on one of the league’s worst defenses over the past four years while playing alongside a genuine star in Deion Jones. He has been stretched both against the run and the pass, allowing a passer rating north of 100 in each of the past two seasons. Campbell, an off-ball linebacker, also plays arguably the easiest position to fill on defense.
I wouldn’t want to make Campbell a priority, but his talent or the decision to add him to the Cardinals’ roster isn’t why this grade is so low. The problem is his contract. This is a one-year, $6 million deal that could get up to $8.5 million with incentives, which is way too much for a player who hasn’t proved himself to be even an average NFL starting linebacker at this point. Even if Campbell does play well, the Cardinals will have to compete with the open market to bring him back, so the reward here is extremely modest.
Even worse, to create cap room, the Cardinals actually gave Campbell a five-year deal with four voidable years to reduce the cap hit they’ll face from this contract in 2020. His deal automatically voids five days after the Super Bowl, and the Cardinals will automatically eat $4 million in dead money on their 2020 cap. It’s one thing when the Saints build in that structure to retain Drew Brees or the Eagles do it to create cap space as part of Lane Johnson‘s contract. If you’re adding four voidable years to try to squeeze a marginal player like Campbell onto your roster, it should be a sign that you’re not managing your finances well. The Cardinals just refinanced their car loan and put a bunch of the payments off until next year so they could buy some fuzzy dice.
Friday, March 20
The deal: Two years, $16 million
The Saints undoubtedly remembered what Sanders did to them in the 2019 regular season. In that 48-46 classic won by the 49ers, Sanders caught seven passes for 157 yards and a touchdown and added a 35-yard touchdown pass for good measure. The Saints were shopping for a second wideout to take Ted Ginn‘s spot in the lineup, and when a big market didn’t jump out at the longtime Broncos standout, Sanders chose to return to the stadium where he had his biggest game as a member of the 49ers.
This could be a move in which the name is bigger than the production. Sanders had that 157-yard game, but across his other 12 games for San Francisco, he averaged just under 35 receiving yards per contest. Sanders was playing through a rib injury and actually completed a 17-game regular season (after the midseason trade), but injuries are also a recent reality for him, given that he missed time with a pair of ankle injuries in 2017 before tearing an Achilles tendon in 2018.
Sanders deserves a ton of credit for working his way back from that Achilles tear to be ready for Week 1, and his experience can only help the Saints as they try to make their way over a recent playoff hump; but he also just turned 33, and he wasn’t especially productive last season. He might have a big game or two, but Sanders isn’t likely to be the sort of difference-maker we saw during his peak from 2014 to 2016. Even if we’re assuming this is a one-year commitment in terms of the guarantee, the Saints are probably paying a fair price or slightly more as opposed to getting a bargain.
The deal: Two years, $16 million
It’s not quite the $10 million-per-year offer Gordon reportedly turned down from the Chargers around the time of his holdout, but with $13.5 million guaranteed, it’s likely he sees the full $16 million from this new deal. In the end, there’s probably not much difference between signing a four-year, $40 million contract with half of it guaranteed — which is likely where Gordon’s Chargers deal would have landed — and signing this deal with a chance to hit free agency again after the salary cap rises in a couple of years.
For all of Gordon’s versatility as a runner and receiver, though, he just hasn’t been consistently healthy or good for very long as a pro. I covered his inconsistency before the 2019 season, noting that we had really seen one above-average season from him in five tries. Last season was a disaster, as Gordon’s rate stats fell across the board after his return from the holdout. Simultaneously, the fumble concerns from his rookie season reappeared — he fumbled four times on 204 touches, including a backbreaking drop on the goal line to hand a victory to the Titans. The Chargers were better with Austin Ekeler on the field.
If Gordon fixes the fumble problem, stays healthy and runs and catches passes efficiently in the way he has once across his five seasons, the Broncos will get a solid return on their deal here. Instead, in signing Gordon, they’re diminishing the role of Phillip Lindsay, who has been more efficient than Gordon over the past two years. The Broncos want to keep Lindsay’s workload down and likely will swap Gordon into the lineup for Royce Freeman, but the back half of a running back rotation isn’t something the Broncos should be giving $13.5 million guaranteed, especially with their needs elsewhere. It might be generous to suggest Gordon is a league-average back, which is something Denver didn’t need to prioritize.
The deal: Two years, $12 million
Nobody can accuse the Steelers of ignoring the tight end position. After trading for Vance McDonald in 2017 and Nick Vannett last year, Pittsburgh is replacing the latter by handing Ebron a two-year deal. A healthy Ebron is an upgrade on both McDonald and Vannett as a receiver, so this is a nice under-the-radar move for Pittsburgh in a rare foray into free agency.
Steelers fans looking up Ebron’s stat line from 2018 and eyeing those 13 touchdowns are too optimistic. That touchdown rate was out of line with both Ebron’s history and the broader history of tight ends in football, given that he turned just 66 catches into 13 scores. The Colts made Ebron a focal point of their offense under Andrew Luck that year with 110 targets, but Ebron’s numbers fell across the board last season. He disagreed with the organization about undergoing ankle surgery in December, which led to his departure this offseason.
A healthy Ebron gives the returning Ben Roethlisberger an upper-echelon athlete with a large catch radius. The Steelers can move Ebron all over the formation to try to create mismatches, which should allow them to leave McDonald inline when they work out of 12 personnel. Drops have been a problem for Ebron in the past, which might bring back ugly memories of Donte Moncrief‘s disastrous September with the Steelers. But if Ebron was consistently healthy and didn’t have the occasional drop, he would be looking at Austin Hooper money.
This is a good risk/reward opportunity for the Steelers, and it’s shocking that tight end-needy teams such as the Patriots didn’t compete here.
Ravens grade: C+
Steelers grade: B-
I’m surprised to see the Ravens move on from Wormley, who played 46% of the defensive snaps last season and looked to be a competent rotation lineman. His role was going to be diminished after Baltimore added Calais Campbell, but with Michael Pierce leaving, I figured Wormley would be in the lineup as a primary reserve.
The Ravens haven’t had trouble drafting and developing Wormley types in the later rounds, so they might see this as a way to get some compensation for Wormley as he enters the final year of his rookie deal.
The Steelers will get a year to try out Wormley as depth up front behind Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt; and if Wormley flashes, Pittsburgh could net a late-round compensatory pick in 2022 for its troubles after he hits free agency.
The deal: Three years, $12 million
This deal guarantees Bailey $5 million, which is a big first year for a player the Vikings were about to cut over the summer. After a disappointing debut campaign in Minnesota, the team responded to Bailey’s preseason struggles by trading a fifth-round pick for Kaare Vedvik. When Vedvik struggled, the Vikings threw up their hands and cut the former Ravens kicker, handing the job back to Bailey. The longtime Cowboys stalwart responded with a solid season, hitting 93.1% of his field goal tries, although he missed four extra points. Football Outsiders pegged Bailey and the Vikings as the 10th-best kicking group on scoring plays in the league.
It’s clear the Vikings are shell-shocked when it comes to kickers and are just going to evaluate guys based on their most recent 20 attempts. Bailey is no different now than he was over the summer or in 2018, when the Vikings wouldn’t have given him this deal. It’s the wrong way to evaluate kickers. Minnesota realistically needs to reevaluate its kicking infrastructure and plan as opposed to alternately convincing itself that Bailey is either not worthy of a job or worth $5 million.
The deal: Four years, $32 million
Jenkins, a first-round pick in 2009, wasn’t necessarily popular with Saints fans when he left town the first time, but after the team struggled to replace him, fans will be more excited about his return. Sean Payton has already said that he should never have let Jenkins leave, and by signing Jenkins to what looks like a two-year contract with approximately $16 million in guarantees, the Saints will have a chance to atone for the mistake they made in 2014.
Of course, they aren’t getting the 26-year-old Jenkins they let leave in free agency. Jenkins will turn 33 in December, and his advancing age is likely why the Eagles elected to decline the Ohio State product’s option. Jenkins had said he wouldn’t be back under the same deal, which was set to pay him $7.9 million for 2020. He didn’t really get a raise, but it looks like he instead received a second guaranteed season at a similar rate by leaving for the Saints.
Jenkins will take Vonn Bell‘s spot in the starting lineup, which could be interesting. Bell served both as a box safety and a free safety at different times in 2020, with Marcus Williams almost always lining up deep. Jenkins, on the other hand, started the vast majority of snaps inside the box.
Once a topflight college cornerback, Jenkins’ calling card as a pro has been his versatility and ability to cover slot receivers, take on tight ends and serve as an effective run defender. He was still generally able to handle those roles in 2019, but I’d be worried about using him in Bell’s role in 2020 and especially in 2021. I’d trust the Saints to build his role to play to his strengths, which are more toward the line of scrimmage at this point, but this could be messy in 2021 if Jenkins declines. With a relatively modest price tag, though, this is a solid move.
The deal: One year, $6 million
Gurley didn’t even make it 24 hours as a free agent before finding his new team. He’ll remain one of the NFL’s highest-paid running backs for 2020, as just $2.5 million of the roster bonus he received from the Rams contains offset language. He will collect $5 million from the Rams and $6 million from the Falcons for a cool $11 million. Given how much Atlanta has invested in its offensive line, this is a logical and smart landing spot for Gurley to rebuild his value.
The Falcons certainly needed running back help after cutting Devonta Freeman, but they should have filled this position in the draft. I don’t love the idea of using $6 million on a running back given the limited cap space they have to replenish their defense. Because this is a one-year deal, even if Gurley breaks out and returns to form, they will probably talk themselves into giving him a new contract next offseason.
The deal: Five years, $57.5 million
Where did this come from? The Saints have a habit of making splash signings for big money in free agency when we think they’re pressed against the cap, but I didn’t see Peat coming back on this sort of deal. Not only is he coming back, but the Saints are giving him the fifth-largest average annual salary of any guard in football. I thought the former first-round pick might attract free-agent interest from a team looking to move him back to tackle, which would have bumped up his price tag, but the Saints are quite happy with Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk on the edge.
I didn’t see a Peat return on the books because the Saints seemed set at guard. Nick Easton was signed last year from the Vikings to take over at center for the retiring Max Unger, but when the Saints grabbed Erik McCoy in the second round of the draft, New Orleans installed him at center and used Easton as an overqualified utility interior lineman. With Peat leaving, it seemed logical that the Saints would push Easton into the starting lineup at guard and play him with the incumbent Larry Warford.
Now that plan doesn’t seem quite as clear. Saints reporters Katherine Terrell and Mike Triplett were wondering whether Peat’s signing could bring an end to Warford’s tenure with the team. Viewed from that angle, a Peat return could make sense. Warford has a cap hit of $12.9 million in the final year of his contract, and the Saints could free up $8.5 million by cutting or trading the former Lions starter. Given the paucity of available guards on the open market, Warford might have some trade value.
Even if Peat does replace Warford, this is a lot of money for a guard who hasn’t played a full 16-game season and didn’t play well in 2019. The 2015 to 2018 version of Peat was on pace to get this sort of deal, and at 26, he still has plenty of time to continue developing. If the Saints use this to move on from Warford, it’s a C+; if they keep Warford and devote this much money to guards and interior linemen, I’d lean toward a C.
The deal: Three years, $48 million
Fowler had his best pro season in 2019, when the former third overall pick was able to start all 16 games for the first time in his career and racked up 11.5 sacks for the Rams. It’s fair to look at his success and assume it was a product of teams being hypervigilant and focused on Aaron Donald, but that wasn’t really the case. Fowler had two sacks in Week 1 when the Panthers locked in on the star defensive tackle and tried to block him alternately with Christian McCaffrey and nobody, but Fowler didn’t get another sack playing off Donald or on the same side as the two-time Defensive Player of the Year until Week 16.
Can the Falcons count on this sort of production from Fowler every season? I’m not sure anyone can be certain. He wasn’t a particularly effective pass-rusher at Florida, where the Gators moved him around the defense. The Jaguars drafted him with the third overall pick to be their Leo rusher, but after he tore an ACL, it opened up a spot for Yannick Ngakoue to prove he was the better player. Fowler never got back his starting job.
Fowler was arrested twice during his time with the Jags, but it also appeared the team simply soured on him. They fined him $700,000 for repeatedly missing “mandatory” appointments that weren’t actually mandatory, an amount Fowler won back via grievance before Tom Coughlin’s departure from the organization. Playing a reserve role behind Ngakoue and Calais Campbell doesn’t necessarily imply that Fowler was all that bad of a player in Jacksonville, and it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which he broke out with Los Angeles after getting a much-needed fresh start.
The Falcons desperately needed a lead pass-rusher after waiting for Vic Beasley to return to form and then letting him walk this offseason. Fowler should be an upgrade on Beasley, albeit at a more expensive cost. If we assume that two of the three years in this deal are guaranteed, which is pretty typical, the Falcons are paying for Fowler to repeat the production from last season over each of the next two seasons. He is capable of doing that.
The deal: Three years, $30 million
While Whitworth was a Hall of Fame-caliber tackle for most of his career, he slipped badly in his age-38 season last year. After committing three holding penalties in 2017 and four in 2018, Whitworth was flagged 10 times last year, which was second in the league behind Broncos tackle Garett Bolles. Whitworth still ranked highly in ESPN’s pass block win rate metric. But in 2018, he ranked 28th in double-team rate, which is the percentage of the time he got help with his blocks; he ranked second last season, meaning the Rams needed to help him far more frequently.
The Rams don’t have any viable alternatives at left tackle and don’t have a first-round pick to target a pedigreed replacement, so they’ll bring Whitworth back for another year and hope that he doesn’t decline any further. He will make $10 million in 2020, but seemingly out of a desire to rack up dead money, the Rams also guaranteed a $2.5 million roster bonus for 2021 when Whitworth signed his deal.
The deal: Three years, $17.3 million
The Titans will hope to replace Jack Conklin by promoting Kelly, who spent the past four years serving as the team’s utility lineman after being acquired in a trade for wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. Kelly was adequate at left tackle by ESPN’s pass block win rate metric last season when he started the first four games for a suspended Taylor Lewan, and everyone on the Tennessee line can run block.
I wouldn’t want to play him on the left side permanently, but Kelly is really on a one-year, $6.3 million deal, which isn’t too risky.
The deal: Two years, $15 million
This is really a one-year, $7.5 million deal from a Dolphins team that has cast its net out for young pass-rushers and is hoping one sticks. I don’t mind that philosophy, and Ogbah has had stretches in which he looked like a promising edge rusher. He had 5.5 sacks and 16 knockdowns for the 1-15 Browns in 2016, before struggling to make an impact over the next two seasons. Traded to the Chiefs last season, he generated 5.5 sacks and 11 knockdowns on just 411 snaps, less than half of his total from that 2016 campaign. One of those sacks was even against star Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga, and Ogbah did a great job of closing down Lamar Jackson in the open field for another.
Ogbah tore his pec in Week 11 and missed the remainder of the season, so while he’ll be on the field, it remains to be seen whether he will be 100 percent to start the campaign. The Dolphins aren’t getting a huge discount here, but Ogbah has some upside.
Thursday, March 19
The Rams cut Todd Gurley on Thursday, bringing a stunning end to the Rams career of a player who was considered a viable MVP candidate as recently as December 2017. His story is a cautionary tale for teams that want to believe their stars are exceptions to what we know about player value and a reminder of how teams that ignore the economics of the NFL often end up paying for their mistakes down the line. It’s also a reminder of just how hard it is to be a running back in the NFL in 2020.
To understand why the Rams cut Gurley, you have to start with the terms of the four-year, $57.5 million extension he signed in July 2018. I didn’t grade this move, but you can read my thoughts on it here.
Eagles grade: B
Lions grade: C
The Eagles finally got their star cornerback by making a deal for Slay, who signed a three-year, $50 million extension in the process. This is a big deal for a Philadelphia team that had typically gone cheap at cornerback during Howie Roseman’s second reign as general manager, but it’s not as enormous of a shift as we might have expected for a couple of reasons. This is on the lower end of what we might have expected for a Slay trade, both in terms of trade compensation and contract value.
While this isn’t exactly a DeAndre Hopkins-sized mistake from the Lions, it’s fair to say that the projected return for a Slay trade before free agency began was more than two mid-round picks. The Lions did get the Eagles’ original third-round selection (No. 85) instead of their third-round compensatory pick (No. 103), but when you consider that the Rams sent two first-round picks to the Jaguars for (the younger) Jalen Ramsey, it seemed fair to expect the Lions to get at least a second-round selection or a late first-round pick as the key highlight in a Slay package.
Likewise, the contract Slay is getting from the Eagles is toward the top end without really resetting the market. Slay responded to a tweet in January about cornerback deals in the $15 million range by saying the numbers were too low, but this deal comes in just above those contracts with an average annual salary of $16.7 million. With Slay reportedly taking home $30 million guaranteed as part of the deal, this appears to be a two-year, $30 million contract, which would be right in line with those figures.
As Over The Cap pointed out, the top of the cornerback market hasn’t jumped in the way we would have expected this offseason, once you adjust for the rising cap. Slay’s average annual salary amounts to 8.4% of the current salary cap, which would make it the eighth-largest cornerback deal since 2011.
Six of the seven larger deals are inactive, including two Darrelle Revis contracts, extensions for Richard Sherman and Joe Haden, and free-agent deals for Nnamdi Asomugha and Josh Norman. Patrick Peterson‘s 2014 extension is the top of the active market at 10.5%, and it’s nearly six years old. For Slay to top that deal on a three-year contract, he would have needed to take home $21 million per season.
While most Eagles fans are thrilled about adding a top-level cornerback after years of trying to get by with the likes of Ronald Darby and Sidney Jones in meaningful roles, there are likely a few who remember the disastrous Asomugha signing and worry that this could be a repeat. He had been brilliant during his time with the Raiders and shut down his side of the field to a virtually unprecedented extent, but after signing with the Eagles before his age-30 season, the three-time Pro Bowler seemed to lose it overnight. He lasted two years with the Eagles before being cut, and he was out of football a year later.
I wouldn’t be as concerned that Slay will disappoint in Philadelphia. Asomugha was a great player, but the Eagles also took him out of the role he played in Oakland for stretches during his first year in Philadelphia, and he never seemed to get his confidence back. Slay hasn’t been as dominant as the former Raiders cornerback, but he’s more versatile and certainly more comfortable moving around the formation to take No. 1 wideouts. Slay was equally comfortable on either side of the field in 2019:
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) March 19, 2020
The Lions, who played the second-highest rate of man coverage in football this past season, stuck Slay on the opposing team’s top receiver a fair amount of the game. In looking through the 2019 season, he had games in which he was up against the likes of Keenan Allen, Allen Robinson, Amari Cooper, Stefon Diggs, Terry McLaurin, Courtland Sutton and Davante Adams on almost every one of their targets. When there wasn’t a clear-cut No. 1 — like when the Lions played the Packers while Adams was hurt — he bounced around more.
The last shutdown corner that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz had was a still-developing Stephon Gilmore in 2014, but according to the Football Outsiders Almanac, Schwartz kept his cornerbacks on their own sides of the field 86% of the time with the Bills that season, the eighth-highest rate in football. That’s not enough information to suggest that the Eagles won’t use Slay to shadow No. 1 wide receivers, but Slay’s usage pattern for 2020 is still subject to some question.
I’m not sure this whole ordeal has gone well for the Lions and their braintrust of Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn. Detroit ended up getting two midround picks for Slay and used the cap space to sign an inferior replacement in Desmond Trufant, who will get $10.5 million per season over the next two years. If the options were Trufant at $10.5 million or Slay at somewhere between $15 million and $17 million per campaign, the third- and fifth-round picks and the salary gap aren’t enough to overcome the difference between the two players. This might not have been an option if Slay insisted on leaving, but I would have rather signed Slay to the extension the Eagles handed out and just kept the better player.
The deal: One year, $4 million
This is an easy, low-cost addition for the Bengals, who will reunite Alexander with former Vikings corner Trae Waynes in a new-look Bengals secondary. The additions would seem to point to Cincinnati either cutting Dre Kirkpatrick or trading William Jackson, with the former far more likely. Alexander has struggled to stay healthy at times, but he has been an above-average slot cornerback when on the field for Minnesota. He should continue in that role for the Bengals in 2020.
The deal: Three years, $42 million
Teams shouldn’t base their free-agent signings on fans’ opinions, but it’s fair to note that Waynes seemed to be perennially frustrating to Vikings fans during his three-plus years as a starter. The 2015 first-rounder took over as a starting corner halfway through his second season and held the job through 2019, though Mike Zimmer would pull him from games for stretches. Waynes was in a rotation as late as December, though he was nearly an every-down player during Minnesota’s two playoff games.
None of the Vikings’ cornerbacks covered themselves in glory in 2019, and Waynes was no exception. He was better than Xavier Rhodes, who posted a brutal passer rating of 128.5 as the nearest defender in coverage, but Waynes was still below league average in posting a mark of 107.3. Rhodes posted the largest gap in the league between expected completion percentage and actual completion percentage; Waynes was 13th worst in the same category. Opposing quarterbacks posted an expected completion percentage of 60.8% on throws in his direction but actually completed 70.4% of those passes.
The Bengals have virtually sat out free agency for years now, but in adding Waynes and D.J. Reader, they’ve spent meaningful money to add talent. Waynes’ $15 million signing bonus is his only guaranteed money, but unless the Bengals cut him before Week 1, he’ll make $20 million for Year 1. Realistically, this is a two-year, $31 million contract, which is an aggressive deal for a player who hasn’t ever played like a No. 1 corner for any length of time.
The deal: Two years, $21 million
Once on a star track with the Falcons, the 29-year-old Trufant hasn’t looked the same since tearing a pectoral muscle during Atlanta’s run to the Super Bowl in 2016. Three disappointing seasons from Trufant followed, and the Falcons finally decided to cut bait this offseason.
I liked the idea of a team signing him as a possible buy-low option, but the Lions are a curious fit. Trufant was cast as the Richard Sherman in Dan Quinn’s defense, designed to try to lock down one side of the field. The last time he really spent a significant amount of time on the right side of the defense was in 2016. The Lions played man coverage on 65.9% of their snaps last season, which was the second-highest rate in football.
It’s possible that Matt Patricia sees Trufant as a candidate for a role change, but there’s some risk in adding him and shifting him into more man coverage. This time, Trufant will be replacing Darius Slay, who was traded to the Eagles on Thursday morning.
The deal: Three years, $27 million
The Vikings essentially swapped out Linval Joseph for Pierce, and while Pierce doesn’t offer Joseph’s pass-rushing upside, I like this swap. Pierce is four years younger and was downright unmovable in his time with the Ravens. He was typically only a two-down defender, but he might be the best nose tackle in the league in that role now that Damon Harrison has declined.
The Vikings were already first in the league in stopping power-running opportunities last season, and they should be able to keep that up with Pierce in the fold.
The deal: Two years, $6.1 million
It seems like Heath has been with the Cowboys since the turn of the century, but after seven years in Dallas, he is joining Jason Witten and Maliek Collins in moving to the desert. The Raiders have Johnathan Abram coming back after missing virtually all of his rookie season and could move LaMarcus Joyner to free safety after a frustrating first season with the organization.
Heath was stretched as a full-time starter for the Cowboys, but his versatility and willingness to hit make him an above-average third safety if the Raiders use him there. Heath has no guaranteed money after 2020.
The deal: Three years, $18 million
With Lorenzo Alexander retiring, the Bills needed to add a strongside linebacker to play alongside starters Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano. Unsurprisingly, general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott went to the Panthers well and came back with Klein, who had been a backup in Carolina before spending three years as a starter in New Orleans. The 28-year-old wasn’t an every-down player — he’s better against the run than he is against the pass — but the Bills will ask him to be an early-down defender and probably put Klein back on special-teams duty.
The overall money here isn’t enormous, but Klein ended up getting a relatively player-friendly structure; he’ll have $8.5 million guaranteed at signing, $3.2 million of which comes in Year 2. That should be enough for him to earn $11 million over the next two seasons.
The deal: Three years, $18.6 million
The Jets traded a conditional seventh-round pick to the Ravens for Lewis last season when Baltimore was about to cut him, which was a surprise given that he had started for John Harbaugh in both 2016 and 2018. Injuries limited Lewis to 20 games over three seasons with the Ravens, and while he was able to stay on the field until missing Week 17, he committed six penalties for 58 yards in 13 starts.
I figured the Jets would look to replace Lewis this offseason, but owing perhaps to a lack of guard options, they’re bringing the 27-year-old back to town. Lewis’ deal is really for one year, $3.5 million with no guarantees after 2020, so they were able to buy two years that will look cheap if he improves this season.
Wednesday, March 18
The deal: Two years, $20.5 million
For years, the undrafted Harris was one of the NFL’s most underrated and underpaid players, thanks to a below-market extension he signed with the Broncos in December 2014. The Kansas product was able to get a raise for his final season in Denver, but Harris wasn’t up to his former level of play in 2019, and that would concern me if I were a Chargers fan.
Part of Harris’ value proposition in years past was his ability to play both outside and in the slot. Few corners can play both spots at a high level, but he was the exception. Last season, the Broncos imported Bryce Callahan to play in the slot, but the former Bears corner missed the entire season because of a foot injury. Despite Callahan’s absence, Harris was rarely used in the slot; according to NFL Next Gen Stats, he took just 3% of his snaps in the slot, down from 52% in 2018 and 55% in 2017. Simultaneously, he allowed a passer rating of 116.3 in coverage, a dramatic rise for a guy who had not topped 71.5 in any of his three prior seasons.
There’s also the reality of age. Harris turns 31 in June, and the survival rate for cornerbacks in their 30s is brutal. Take the corners who started 12 or more games in their age-30 seasons between 2000 and 2015. Just 48.5% of them started 12 or more games in their age-31 campaigns, with that number dropping to 37.5% at age 32 and a mere 20.3% at age 33. In addition, corners under 6 feet were less likely to survive each year than taller ones, and Harris is listed at 5-foot-10.
Is Harris more talented than the majority of those corners? Maybe, but even guys who were starring as they turned 30 lost the plot quickly. Nine of those 30-year-old corners made it to the Pro Bowl. Some (such as Troy Vincent and Ronde Barber) continued to play well for years to come. Others were on their way out. Darrelle Revis was a Pro Bowler for the Jets at age 30, he declined rapidly at 31, and then he was out of football, except for a brief, disastrous stint with the Chiefs. Antonio Cromartie and Tim Jennings each started one more season before their careers as regulars came to a close. Charles Tillman started one more year, missed most of two seasons due to injury and then came back for one 12-game run with the Panthers. Aaron Glenn started two more seasons and then bounced around the league for years as a veteran reserve.
It’s clear that the league was concerned about Harris, given that he failed to come close to the top of the market in terms of money. I would assume that this deal is mostly or entirely guaranteed. The Chargers already have Casey Hayward outside and Desmond King in the slot, so Harris will come in as the other outside cornerback. With Hayward and Harris on the wrong side of 30, this group looks better on paper than it plays in reality.
The deal: One year, $5 million
The Steelers never seemed to find the best fit for Davis in his time with the team. They started him as a strong safety before moving him to free safety in 2018, and he showed promise but didn’t quite make the position his own. Last year was going to be a make-or-break season for Davis, but he suffered a shoulder injury in a Week 1 loss to the Patriots, which led the Steelers to move Minkah Fitzpatrick into the role. Fitzpatrick isn’t leaving for a long time.
Going after Davis makes sense for Washington, which has Landon Collins to play as a box safety and needs somebody who can play center field. It would have been a better deal if Washington could have netted at least one team option at the end, but Davis likely insisted on a one-year deal so he can reestablish his value before hitting free agency in 2020.
The deal: Two years, $17 million
Joseph remained a viable starter for the Vikings until the end, though he missed three games in 2019 due to a knee injury and played just 51% of the defensive snaps, his second-lowest percentage in six seasons with Minnesota. The Vikings ranked in the top 10 against both the run and the pass by DVOA, despite mostly theoretical cornerback play, and though Joseph wasn’t the primary contributor to their pass defense, he’s still going to be a solid big body against the run.
The days of Joseph topping three sacks and 10 knockdowns in a season might be over, but he can offer a little more as a pocket-pusher than most run-first tackles. The Chargers will hope he ends up forming a stout pair of three-down tackles with 2019 first-round pick Jerry Tillery.
The deal: One year, $4.5 million
Moved into a reserve role after the Cowboys drafted Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, Lee is likely overqualified for his part-time position, but injury concerns and the lure of sticking with his only professional team were enough to get him to take a pay cut last year and stick around this offseason. He turns 34 this offseason and might have had a clearer path to a starting role elsewhere, but with Vander Esch recovering from neck surgery, Lee should see plenty of snaps in Dallas in 2020.
The deal: One year, $10 million
After the Rams acquired Dante Fowler Jr. two seasons ago and coaxed an 11.5-sack season out of the former third overall pick, they’ll try to do the same thing with Floyd. The ninth overall pick in the 2016 draft, Floyd hasn’t been able to make much of an impact as a pass-rusher, despite the presence of Khalil Mack on the other side of the field. Floyd’s sack total has dropped each of the past three seasons, and his gangly frame doesn’t make him a great run defender at the point of attack.
The Rams are betting on potential here, but the price is awfully high for a player who hasn’t been a difference-maker. Floyd’s deal could rise to $13 million with incentives. Even if Floyd breaks out, the Rams won’t have any leverage to keep him around for years to come. This deal needed to either be for less money or have a second year attached.
Broncos grade: B+
Titans grade: D+
This is a straight salary dump for the Titans, who are getting the 237th pick in return for a guy who was arguably their best defensive player the past five seasons. Tennessee is going to replace Casey in its starting lineup with 2019 first-round pick Jeffery Simmons, who missed most of his rookie season because of a torn ACL but flashed during Tennessee’s postseason run. The move frees up just under $10 million on the 2020 cap for the Titans.
This is an easy victory for the Broncos, whose three starters along the defensive line are all free agents. Casey isn’t in the top tier of interior pass-rushers, but he’s a tough two-way player who should help create pass-rushing opportunities off of stunts and twists for Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. Denver coach Vic Fangio will likely use Casey in the Akiem Hicks role, and given what lesser players are getting paid in free agency, bringing in Casey on what amounts to a three-year, $37.9 million deal with no guaranteed money is a good use of a late seventh-round pick.
The question now: What are the Titans clearing out money to do? If it’s to create cash or cap space for a massive Derrick Henry extension, it’s probably not going to be a great use of money. If it’s for something else, we’ll reevaluate this grade later.
The deal: One year, $5 million
Non-tendered by the Falcons last offseason, Poole responded by turning into something truly rare by 2019 standards: a bright spot for the Jets. With Poole serving as their primary slot corner, the Jets allowed a passer rating of 87.7 to wideouts who came out of the slot or out of a tight split, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the third-best mark in football. By comparison, they ranked 22nd in the league in passer rating on throws to receivers who were split out wide.
This is a deep draft class for competent cornerbacks (without many great ones available), but the logical entry point for Poole was going to be something close to the four-year, $36 million deal Justin Coleman signed with the Lions last season. Instead, I’m shocked that the 27-year-old Poole wasn’t able to attract a significant multiyear offer. The cornerback market has been stagnant, but this is a great deal for the Jets, who get back one of the few positive contributors for another campaign on a modest deal.
The deal: Three years, $20.3 million
It was a surprise when the Bucs cut McCoy last year after he made six consecutive Pro Bowls from 2012 to ’17, but Tampa was better after replacing McCoy with Ndamukong Suh, and McCoy didn’t have his best season in Carolina. The Oklahoma product tied his lowest totals from that Pro Bowl run in sacks (five) and knockdowns (13).
McCoy was also one of the starting defensive tackles on the league’s worst run defense by DVOA. The Panthers allowed more yards per carry without him on the field, but they gave up 5.0 yards per pop with him present, and their first-down rate was higher with him on the field. I don’t think McCoy was capable of single-handedly saving a decaying Panthers front, and the Bucs added other pieces, but Tampa also went from 31st in rushing DVOA to first in the league after replacing McCoy with Suh.
At this point, McCoy is going to be best as a penetrating interior disruptor who can serve as a team’s secondary pass-rusher. That’s exactly what he’ll be in Dallas, where the Cowboys could move on from Tyrone Crawford. This is a reasonable price, though McCoy’s decline over the past few seasons means the Cowboys might want to get out of this deal after one year.
The deal: Five years, $70 million
Quinn had a bounce-back year in Dallas, racking up 11.5 sacks and 22 knockdowns in 14 games. By ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric, though, the former Rams standout was already a superstar. He posted the league’s best PRWR in 2018 and 2019 by a comfortable margin. He has won on 32.6% of his pass-rush attempts the past two seasons, and second-placed T.J. Watt is closer to 17th place than he is to Quinn in first. By another measure, Quinn has created a sack once every 22 pass-rush attempts the past two seasons, which is the fifth-best mark in football for defenders with 400 or more attempts.
Top-10 edge rusher money would put Quinn somewhere around $17 million per season, so it’s clear that the league isn’t valuing Quinn at the level advanced metrics indicate. Chicago general manager Ryan Pace suggested he “wasn’t a Moneyball general manager” upon being hired, and though I’m not exactly sure what that means years later, I don’t think he was relying heavily on analytics when he signed Quinn. Either way, with $30 million reportedly fully guaranteed on this contract, this isn’t an enormous overpay for an edge rusher.
Of course, the Bears already have the league’s largest defensive contract committed to the edge rusher on the other side of the field in Khalil Mack. Cutting Leonard Floyd created $13.2 million in cap space and made the Quinn deal work, but I wonder if this is money the Bears should have committed (at least in part) to a quarterback such as Teddy Bridgewater, a guard or one of the many cornerbacks on the market.
The deal: Three years, $30 million
Yet another player signing a three-year, $30 million pact, Phillips racked up 9.5 sacks in a breakout season in Buffalo. Neither the tape nor the numbers suggest that Phillips is likely to repeat that total; he finished the season with 16 knockdowns and a pass rush win rate of 10.1%, which ranked 71st in the league. ESPN’s automated analysis suggests that Phillips created only five sacks, all for himself.
Even a fallback season for Phillips would help the Cardinals, who didn’t get much of a pass rush from their defensive line in 2019 after Darius Philon was cut before the season. The only D-lineman who popped occasionally was Rodney Gunter, who is now a free agent. Outside linebacker Chandler Jones continues to play at a high level, but the Cardinals badly need an interior disruptor to help draw attention away from the former Patriots standout. Phillips is coming in to play that role, but I’m skeptical that he’ll hit that 9.5-sack total again.
The deal: Three years, $63 million
It’s hard not to root for the much-loved Bridgewater, who has officially come all the way back from his career-threatening knee injury to earn a starting job with another team. The Panthers are giving him $40 million guaranteed over the next two seasons and shopping Cam Newton, who will either be cut or traded. There’s a chance that Carolina could draft a quarterback in 2021 if Bridgewater struggles, but for now, Teddy is the man in Carolina.
The move reunites Bridgewater with new Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who served as an offensive assistant with the Saints in 2018 before taking over as LSU’s offensive coordinator last season. Brady was able to unlock something special in Joe Burrow, who turned into the presumptive first overall pick in his final season with the Tigers. Asking Bridgewater to produce one of the best seasons we’ve ever seen is a little much, but he could be a good fit with the offensive concepts Burrow ran in 2019.
Bridgewater’s biggest strength is quickly working through his progressions to make accurate throws to open receivers. Brady had similar faith in Burrow, whom he frequently placed in empty backfields and trusted to find an open receiver before any blitz could get home. Bridgewater should get to do the same in Carolina. Of course, Burrow had one of the best receiving corps in recent memory to pluck 50/50 balls out of the air; Bridgewater isn’t going to have those sort of mismatches in Carolina.
The Panthers do have receivers such as Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel and DJ Moore, each of whom can make teams pay after the catch. Bridgewater’s accuracy should put those receivers in positions in which they can catch balls in stride. I wouldn’t expect the Panthers to be an explosive downfield attack, but they should be able to create big plays by making defenders miss in the open field.
The downside here is that Bridgewater has thrown just 221 passes the past four seasons. He was solid in winning all five of his starts with the Saints last season, but that was in about as quarterback-friendly of an offense as you can imagine, given New Orleans’ playcalling and personnel. Just one of the five teams Bridgewater beat during that stretch finished in the top 10 for pass defense DVOA, and that was the eighth-placed Bears. The Carolina offensive line is also a work in progress after trading Trai Turner for Russell Okung, and the only tight end of note on the roster is Ian Thomas.
This is a good fit for both player and team. Bridgewater is now one of the few quarterbacks in the league on a middle-class deal, given that everyone else is either typically on a rookie deal or on a contract north of $25 million per season. The unique, unpredictable path he took here makes that a fair deal, and if he plays the way he did with the Saints a year ago, it could be a bargain for new coach Matt Rhule.
The deal: Five years, $53.8 million
As is often the case with Jacksonville’s free-agent deals, this is really a two-year contract with options. In the past, because the Jags had virtually unlimited cap space, general manager Dave Caldwell was able to give those deals out with small or nonexistent signing bonuses, which meant they were able to easily get out of their signings when overpays for guys such as Dan Skuta and Jared Odrick didn’t work out. With the cap a much more pressing issue for the team these days, Schobert instead takes home a $12 million signing bonus as part of this deal, which means the Jags would owe $7.2 million in dead money if they move on from him after the season.
Two years and $22.5 million isn’t a dramatic overpay for Schobert, who is the latest in the seemingly endless line of useful cover linebackers coming out of Wisconsin. In the range of linebackers getting somewhere between $10 million and $12 million per season this offseason, I’d prefer Schobert to everybody besides Cory Littleton.
My issue with this deal, instead, is that it’s about the last place this team should be spending the little cap room it has left. Yes, it needs to replace Telvin Smith. For a team that is already paying Myles Jack more than $14 million per season, though, is adding a second off-the-ball linebacker on a big-money deal really the best use of resources? This is a position where teams — including these same Jaguars under Caldwell — can typically find useful players in the middle rounds of the draft.
This money probably should have gone to help in the secondary or a tight end or even toward a bigger deal for Teddy Bridgewater, who would have been an upgrade on Gardner Minshew. It’s money the Jaguars could have pushed toward Yannick Ngakoue or a replacement in their pass-rush rotation for the frustrated franchise tagged player. This is a reasonable move for the wrong team.
The deal: Five years, $45 million
The Eagles have been spoiled to have Vaitai as their swing tackle the past few seasons. The TCU product was a competent left tackle while filling in for Jason Peters during Philadelphia’s run to the Super Bowl in 2017, playing particularly well during the postseason. Since then, he has served as a sixth lineman and injury replacement, playing nine complete or nearly complete games in the process. He filled in for Lane Johnson over the final few weeks of 2019, when the star right tackle went down with a high ankle sprain.
Vaitai was always going to be too expensive for Philadelphia, but there was some sticker shock when his initial deal with the Lions was reported. The actual deal isn’t quite as significant; Vaitai is earning $10 million per season with a couple of guaranteed years. This is a two-year, $20 million pact with options attached afterward. Vaitai will take over for the released Rick Wagner on the right side with Taylor Decker, who is soon due for a contract extension, entrenched on the left side. I thought Vaitai’s big deal might come from a team that wanted to sign him to play left tackle, where players typically get paid more money.
There are three right tackles who have signed deals in this price range this offseason. Vaitai is a more promising option than George Fant (Jets), who has looked less impressive and has less experience than the Big V. At the same time, Bryan Bulaga (Chargers) has been a much more impressive NFL player than Vaitai. Although he’s older and has more of an injury history, if I were Matthew Stafford, I’d much rather have Bulaga guaranteed for the next two seasons at right tackle than Vaitai.
The deal: Two years, $8 million
The Lions found their replacement for Damon Harrison in Shelton, who has consistently been a productive two-down nose tackle during his career. Last year was his best season, as the former Browns first-round pick was an anchor up front for the league’s leading rush defense.
It’s telling that Patriots coach Bill Belichick thinks he can find another nose tackle for relatively cheap and let Shelton leave at this sort of modest price, but the Lions were losing virtually all of their defensive tackles to free agency and desperately needed talent here.
Tuesday, March 17
The deal: Brady is expected to sign with the Bucs soon
Was Brady foolish to pick the Buccaneers? Should Tampa have gone for one of the other quarterbacks? Can he be competitive with his new team and even compete for a Super Bowl? Let’s run through what we know about this new marriage and get a sense of what to expect for Brady in Florida.
The deal: One year, up to $4.8 million
After 16 seasons in Dallas, the future Hall of Famer has decided to extend his career and make a trip to Vegas to reunite with a fellow former Monday Night Football commentator in Jon Gruden. At this point, Witten’s role is essentially to run short option routes, catch passes and fall down; he ranked 90th in yards after first contact and 97th in air yards per target out of 107 receivers last season.
Witten is past the point of serving as a primary tight end, but as an inline option who frees Darren Waller to move around the formation, he’s a logical fit for the Raiders.
The deal: Three years, $30 million
The best case for Bulaga’s indirect value has been observing what happens to Aaron Rodgers when Bulaga isn’t on the field. In 2019, when the right tackle played 16 games for only the third time in 10 pro seasons, he missed most of two games and parts of six others. Unsurprisingly, Rodgers’ numbers fell off: The quarterback’s passer rating dropped from 96.6 with Bulaga on the field to 83.8 across 101 dropbacks without him. Rodgers’ sack rate was actually worse with Bulaga on the field, but he went from averaging 7.2 yards per attempt with him on the field to just 5.8 yards per throw without him. Rodgers is no fool: When Bulaga wasn’t protecting him, he got the ball out more quickly.
Those seven other pro seasons are the most plausible reason the Chargers might regret this deal. Bulaga has missed 45 games in his career, including all of 2013 because of a torn ACL. He has another 13 games in which he was active and in the lineup but failed to play more than 50% of the offensive snaps, often owing to injuries prematurely ending his night. Bulaga turns 31 next week, so it’s tough to imagine him getting dramatically healthier over the course of this deal, though he has missed only two full games the past two seasons.
Even given those injury concerns, though, the Chargers have to be happy with this contract. George Fant got three years and $30 million from the Jets, and he barely has 16 games’ worth of experience as an NFL lineman. This is an easy win for the Chargers and a major upgrade on what was a dismal right tackle situation for Anthony Lynn’s team in 2019.
The deal: Four years, $53 million
As shocking as it is to see future Hall of Famers changing teams in free agency, what might be even wilder is a rare foray into unrestricted free agency for the Bengals. Cincinnati has occasionally signed low-cost players such as A.J. Hawk or brought back cut former Bengals such as Michael Johnson, but the Bengals have generally stayed out of the upper-middle class and higher free-agent neighborhood. Perhaps buoyed by the success the Packers have had in free agency, Cincinnati actually has signings worth writing up.
Around the league, there was a lot of interest in Reader, who took over as the Texans’ nose tackle for Vince Wilfork and might profile as a lesser version of the Patriots great. Nose tackles typically don’t get this sort of deal, but Reader had his best season as a pass disruptor in 2019, racking up 2.5 sacks, 13 knockdowns and 6 tackles for loss. He has stayed relatively healthy, missing only three games in four seasons, and he is a logical option to line up alongside undersized penetrating tackle Geno Atkins on the interior. Reader should immediately upgrade a run defense that ranked 28th in defensive DVOA last season, though that upgrade comes at an enormous cost.
The deal: Three years, $18 million
Boston has struggled to come away with multiyear deals after solid campaigns with the Chargers and Cardinals, but after making his return to the Panthers in 2019, he did enough to convince a transitioning Panthers team to keep him around. This could end up as a one-year deal in the $9.5 million range, and Boston wasn’t able to make an impact as part of the league’s worst run defense in 2019, but he was a competent free safety. I think he’s best as a safety working his way into the box, but the Panthers used Boston almost entirely as a free safety in 2019, with Eric Reid working as their strong safety. I wonder if new coordinator Phil Snow will use the two more interchangeably in 2020.
The deal: One year, $25 million
If Tom Brady leaving the Patriots for Tampa Bay isn’t weird enough, get ready for Rivers in silver and blue. I wondered whether the post-Brady Patriots might try to hijack Rivers’ long-rumored move to the Colts, but the reunion between Rivers and former Chargers offensive coordinator Frank Reich just made too much sense for all parties involved. I’m a little surprised that this isn’t more than a one-year pact, even if future years weren’t guaranteed, but Indianapolis has the cap space to absorb a one-year deal and shouldn’t have much trouble bringing Rivers back if things work out.
I’m optimistic that we’ll see a better Rivers in 2020 than we did in 2019, in part because he is going from one of the league’s worst offensive lines to what might arguably be one of its best. The Chargers ranked 19th in ESPN’s pass block win rate metric last season, and even that was likely a product of Rivers’ ability to read defenses and put his linemen in the right place. Anthony Lynn’s offense was overcome by injuries up front, with veterans Russell Okung and Mike Pouncey missing a combined 21 games and never playing a snap together during the season. The Chargers had what was likely the worst tackle situation in football with Sam Tevi and Trent Scott in key roles.
The Colts ranked third in pass block win rate and did a solid job of protecting Jacoby Brissett, whose sack rate in his second run as Colts starter was nearly half of what it was the first time around. With steady, competent protection, expect Rivers to do a better job of protecting himself pre-snap and have fewer plays in which he gets blown up by a failed block attempt immediately afterward. Indy already brought back Anthony Castonzo, which should provide Rivers with one of the league’s best left tackles on his blindside.
Rivers’ interception rate spiked last season, but as I mentioned in my column about possible Brady replacements, a league-high seven of his 20 picks came in the final five minutes of games while his team was trailing. Those are moments when he typically had to try to put the ball into tight windows to try to make something happen. The previous season, playing on a Chargers team that often had leads in the final five minutes, Rivers threw just one pick in the final five minutes of games.
I’d also count on him playing better in front of fans who actually want to root for his team. With the Chargers forced to resort to silent counts in front of rabid fans who were cheering for the opposition in Carson, California, Rivers was 25th in passer rating at home in 2019. He was 13th in the same category on the road. In 2018, Rivers was ninth in passer rating at home and fourth on the road. I wouldn’t usually put much stock in a two-year sample of home/road splits, but few teams have faced the sort of home-field disadvantage the Chargers were up against.
This move isn’t without risk, of course. Rivers turns 39 in December, and you can’t chalk all of his interceptions up to desperate decisions. The Chargers’ offense wasn’t moving the ball effectively early in games, which is why they were often trailing in the fourth quarter. It’s hardly as if the Rivers-Reich partnership was a roaring success the first time around; Reich was fired after a 4-12 season in which the Chargers ranked 26th in points per game and 15th in offensive DVOA. The Colts also don’t have the sort of weapons the Chargers had for Rivers and need to add at least one wide receiver to work alongside T.Y. Hilton and second-year wideout Parris Campbell.
Even given those concerns, Rivers was the best quarterback the Colts could have targeted in free agency. He should be an upgrade on Brissett. With the Jaguars rebuilding, the Titans likely to see some sort of regression from Ryan Tannehill and the Texans seemingly undergoing an existential crisis, the Colts are well-positioned to make a run at the division title if they can get their draft right.
The deal: Two years, $10 million
I’ve liked some of the upside shots the Dolphins have taken, particularly edge rusher Shaq Lawson, and getting Byron Jones to build the league’s most imposing set of cornerbacks is a logical move at the top of the market. This, though, is a brutally bad decision. Howard is a totally reasonable one-cut back without top-end speed who doesn’t offer anything in the passing game, and there are approximately 30 of those guys for NFL teams to sign at any given time. The 49ers have five of them on the roster right now. It’s arguably the most fungible player type in football.
With the Dolphins still not especially close to contending, this is a position with which they should have taken one or two of their 14 draft picks and gone after somebody who could turn into a three- or four-year starter. I suspect Miami will still draft a runner, and he’ll eventually take over as the starter, but every carry and practice rep the Dolphins give to Howard incurs the opportunity cost of not stumbling on a more valuable replacement at a fraction of the cost. The money isn’t going to make or break the Dolphins, but this would be a short-sighted decision at the league minimum, let alone for $5 million per season.
The deal: Three years, $27 million
First things first: I’m considering this grade independent of the DeAndre Hopkins trade. It isn’t fair or realistic to consider Cobb as a replacement for one of the league’s top receivers, though I suspect we’ll all be casting Cobb in that role within the broader story of what Bill O’Brien has done to the Texans. Here, I’m trying to consider whether this signing is a good idea for the Texans with their current, post-Hopkins roster.
I still don’t like this move. I can understand the logic of bringing in somebody who can work underneath as a possession receiver while Will Fuller and Kenny Stills head downfield, but Houston already has a competent slot receiver it refuses to give reps to in Keke Coutee. The Texans have two second-round picks and a third-round selection in the deepest draft class for wide receivers in recent memory. I have to imagine they could have grabbed a slot receiver with one of those selections and used this cap space more wisely.
Is Cobb really a difference-maker? This is a receiver who was able to net only a one-year, $5 million deal from the Cowboys last offseason. He had a nice bounce-back season, but it came after his receiving yards per game dropped four years in a row and fell by nearly 50% from his 2014 peak. Dak Prescott‘s numbers didn’t budge with or without Cobb; the quarterback posted a 99.4 passer rating and a 71.6 QBR with Cobb on the field, then hit a 100.5 passer rating and 73.8 QBR without Cobb in the lineup.
At a similar price to last season’s, Cobb would be a viable addition for the Texans. By handing him a contract with $18.75 million in guarantees, the Texans are buying that Cobb will improve on his 2019 numbers, if not come close to the player who was a Pro Bowler in 2014. Cobb could be the beneficiary of a lot of low-efficiency targets within this offense, but I’m not optimistic that O’Brien is using his money wisely here.
The deal: Three years, $36 million
The Raiders had one of the NFL’s worst linebacking corps last season. After adding Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski, they should be competent and have the upside to be very good if Kwiatkoski lives up to his potential. I wasn’t sure Kwiatkoski was enough of an upgrade to right the ship for this team on his own, but the addition of Littleton should comfortably raise the Raiders’ floor on defense.
Although he was lost in the shuffle behind stars such as Aaron Donald, nobody improved more over the course of Wade Phillips’ tenure with the Rams than Littleton, who made it to the Pro Bowl in his first year as a starter in 2018 and deserved to make it in 2019. Few linebackers in the league are as rangey as the Washington product, who spent time in college as an outside linebacker and edge rusher before moving inside in the pros. There’s no perfect solution for covering guys such as Travis Kelce, but Littleton gives Las Vegas a fighting chance.
I’d much rather have Littleton at $12 million per season than guys such as Blake Martinez at $10 million or Danny Trevathan at $9.3 million. You might worry about whether Littleton will be able to keep this level of play up now that he has left Phillips, who is somehow still a coaching free agent, but that’s a risk the Raiders are rightfully willing to take. Littleton doesn’t play a key position, but he’s one of the best inside linebackers in the league.
The deal: Three years, $13.1 million
Through the end of 2019, Daniel has collected $34,309,164. He has thrown 218 regular-season pass attempts, which means he has earned something like $157,381 for every meaningful pass he has thrown at the professional level. If you prefer to go by snap, Daniel has earned $67,141 for each of his 511 NFL snaps, the majority of which have involved him handing the ball off or kneeling.
I used to think that the only thing in the way of Daniel’s collecting untold millions of dollars for years to come was the possibility that he might reveal himself to be an ordinary backup quarterback who isn’t worth millions. After he mostly threw checkdowns in his three starts with the Bears and went 1-2 with one of the league’s best defenses, though, the Lions are giving him $4.4 million per season. It isn’t even as if the Lions can pretend that he’s going to mentor a young quarterback such as Mitchell Trubisky, either, given that their starter is veteran Matthew Stafford. Chase is going to continue to be on the case until he’s well into his 40s.
The deal: Three years, $30.5 million
The rush of former Panthers to Western New York continues, as Addison joins former Panthers teammates Star Lotulelei and Josh Norman in playing for former Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. I’m not sure there is a more underrated pass-rusher in the NFL than Addison, who ranks 11th in sacks (39.5) over the past four seasons. He isn’t a great run defender, but if he can approach 10 sacks as a rotational pass-rusher for $10 million, the Bills will find someone else to plug the run on early downs.
What’s interesting here is that the player Addison is nominally replacing in the rotation is Shaq Lawson, whose skill set is roughly opposite that of Addison’s as a player who is better against the run than the pass. It’s easier to find another Lawson than it is to find a player such as Addison, and I would imagine the Bills will go after an edge-setting end to serve as their fourth defensive end in 2020.
Addison likely took a bit of a discount to play for McDermott, given how much edge rushers are being paid. That is a useful reminder of how quickly the story has flipped for Buffalo, which was once thought of as a place free agents wouldn’t want to go. It’s also an indicator of where the Bills are; with Tom Brady leaving the Patriots, the Bills are the favorites to win the AFC East. Spending 5% of the cap on a 32-year-old edge rusher who might play only 50% of the defensive snaps wouldn’t have made sense for the Bills for much of the Brady era. Now, having rebuilt their roster and waited out the Patriots, Buffalo is rightfully in win-now mode.
The deal: Three years, $30 million
Teams shouldn’t rely heavily on a player’s most recent game, but it can’t feel good for the Giants to be signing the primary run tackler on a defense that was torn to shreds by the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. I’d pin more blame for that loss on the edge defenders and safeties of the Packers than Martinez, but you have to burn that tape if you want to feel good about your future starting linebacker.
Middle/inside linebacker has been a problem for the Giants going back seemingly to Antonio Pierce’s retirement in 2009. I don’t believe the Giants have had a player start more than eight games at the position in consecutive seasons over the past decade, with young players such as B.J. Goodson and Jonathan Goff and veterans such as Jon Beason and Jasper Brinkley failing to make the position their own for multiple campaigns. With Martinez getting $19 million guaranteed and $22.5 million in the first two years of his new deal, it’s clear that the Giants intend on Martinez breaking that trend.
One thing’s clear with Martinez: He’ll pile up a lot of tackles. The only players with more solo tackles the past four seasons are Bobby Wagner and Tahir Whitehead. Those tackles might come 5 or 6 yards past the line of scrimmage, though, and Martinez has been a liability in pass coverage. The Stanford product has allowed a passer rating north of 100 in coverage each of the past two seasons. He should lock down a problem position for the Giants, but I’m not sure he makes their defense all that much better.
The deal: Two years, $50 million
I’m admittedly not always the easiest grader, but it’s hard to find much wrong with bringing back a Hall of Fame quarterback on a below-market deal. This is more likely to be a one-year commitment with a voidable year to help create short-term cap space, which is just fine when you’re making space for a franchise quarterback.
Brees didn’t let his slow end to 2018 carry over and was excellent yet again in 2019. There’s always going to be a chance that the 41-year-old will drop off in a way similar to how Tom Brady did in 2019, but the Saints rightfully are going to take another shot at a Super Bowl with Brees in the fold.
The deal: Four years, $51 million
Patriots coach Bill Belichick is a magician. The Lions drafted Van Noy in the second round in 2014 and couldn’t figure out what to do with him. Belichick traded a sixth-round pick for Van Noy and a seventh-rounder. (Detroit used the pick on quarterback Brad Kaaya, who didn’t make it to October on their roster.) Belichick spent a half-season finding the right role for Van Noy, signed him to a two-year extension for modest money and then got three years of excellent work at a below-market rate.
Now, Belichick will likely recoup a compensatory fourth-round pick for letting Van Noy leave for the Dolphins. The Patriots have shown an ability to let linebackers leave without missing a beat, and I suspect they’ll find the next Van Noy and do fine. The Dolphins were starting replacement-level players at inside linebacker for most of the season, but this is typically a position at which even bad teams can draft and develop useful contributors. The Browns, Miami’s predecessors in tanking, did little player development under Sashi Brown but managed to unearth a pair of useful starters in Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert. Cleveland also traded for Jamie Collins and signed him to a massive deal — you can’t win them all.
This isn’t quite a Collins-sized deal for Van Noy, but it’s a lot of money for a guy who would have probably come in closer to $10 million per year if he had been playing for a different team. This is really a one-year, $15 million deal with Van Noy’s 2021 and 2022 base salaries guaranteed only for injury, which gives the Dolphins more flexibility if they want to get out of the contract. At that one-year price, though, Van Noy is basically going to have to repeat his 2019 season and produce as both a pass-rusher and a coverage linebacker. Typically, these sort of significant investments in free-agent inside linebackers turn out to be disappointing.
The deal: Two years, $23 million
Most defensive tackles with a 10.5-sack, 24-knockdown season on their résumés would expect to get massive deals once they hit free agency. Reed did not, in part because of a domestic violence accusation that led the NFL to suspend the Alabama product for six games in 2019. Reed wasn’t very good when he returned, as he managed only two sacks and eight knockdowns for a Seahawks team crying out for a second pass-rusher behind Jadeveon Clowney.
At 27, Reed likely took a short-term deal from the Seahawks in hopes of producing another big year before the salary cap rises dramatically in a couple of years.
The deal: Three years, $27 million
The Saints usually make a splash in free agency by adding a player nobody expects them to grab. This year, their splash might be unexpectedly keeping guys around. It’s no surprise that the Saints wanted to retain Onyemata, who did a solid job of filling in for Sheldon Rankins in what was essentially a lost season for the 2016 first-round pick. Onyemata finished with three sacks and 11 knockdowns while serving as a stout defender against the run.
After Rankins struggled to return from a torn Achilles last season, it looks as if the Saints are prioritizing Onyemata’s future as a centerpiece of their defensive line. Onyemata is likely to start alongside Malcom Brown in 2020, with Rankins and All-Name team member Shy Tuttle as the back half of the rotation. With the Saints’ secondary in flux, retaining Onyemata to bring back a key piece of the defensive line makes plenty of sense.
The deal: Five years, $85 million
Before 2019, Armstead looked like he had settled in as a run-stuffing defensive end on early downs who could occasionally move inside in passing situations with limited success. As so many players for the 49ers did on defense last season, though, he blew away whatever expectations we might have had for him. The former first-round pick went from racking up nine sacks on 1,621 defensive snaps in four seasons to generating 10 sacks on 779 snaps in 2019.
Armstead’s 10 sacks came on 18 knockdowns, which suggests he was slightly lucky; typically, 18 knockdowns would generate about eight sacks. On the other hand, ESPN’s pass rush win rate analysis suggests that Armstead created 11 sacks, with four of those 11 generated for other players. He moved all across the formation to create pass-rushing opportunities and beat some good players for sacks, most notably multiple-time Pro Bowler Trai Turner.
Hours after reports suggested the 49ers were close to an extension with Armstead, San Francisco shipped DeForest Buckner to the Colts for a first-round pick. Both Armstead and Sheldon Day are free agents, and with Dee Ford expected to see the field more frequently in 2020, we’re going to see more of Armstead on the interior as a defensive tackle. The Oregon product will almost surely play inside on a more regular basis next season, which will hurt his value after he shifted between defensive end and defensive tackle last season.
The Armstead deal appears to be something close to a two-year, $35 million pact or a three-year, $50 million deal before the 49ers would be forced to make a serious decision about his future. To make that money work, Armstead would need to play for three more seasons like the guy who was excellent against the run and a difference-maker as a pass-rusher in 2019. Given that 2019 is an outlier in terms of Armstead’s pass-rushing production, I would take the under here.
The deal: Three years, $30 million
After disappointing with the Browns, Collins made his way back to the Patriots in 2019 and was an absolute revelation. Unleashed in a role at the line of scrimmage as a pass-rusher while taking snaps as a more traditional inside linebacker, he racked up seven sacks and picked off three passes while playing 81% of the defensive snaps.
I figured that Collins and New England could come to terms and find common ground on a deal that would keep him in Foxborough at a bit of a discount. Instead, Collins found the next best thing, as he signed with former Patriots executives Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia in Detroit on a three-year, $30 million pact with $18 million guaranteed.
Outside players have seemed to get worse after joining the Lions under Patricia, which doesn’t bode well for Collins’ chances. The Lions need to carve out a specific role to play to his athleticism and unique instincts, and that takes work. Belichick also had a pair of linebackers who could rotate in the same role with Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower. Christian Jones and Jarrad Davis aren’t the same caliber of linebacker. It would take the 2019 version of Collins to excel under this deal, and that guy didn’t make the trip from the Patriots to the Browns the first time Collins hit free agency.
The deal: Five years, $100 million
The two teams most impacted by the league and players agreeing to a new CBA at the last moment approached their problem in different ways. Without the ability to use both the franchise and transition tags as planned, the Titans went over the odds to lock up quarterback Ryan Tannehill, which freed up running back Derrick Henry for the franchise tag. The Cowboys went the other way, using the franchise tag on quarterback Dak Prescott and letting Cooper hit free agency unfettered.
It was a dangerous move in case Cooper was bowled over by an offer from a competitive team, but the biggest offer for the former Raiders star appeared to come from Washington, which doesn’t yet know what it has in quarterback Dwayne Haskins. In the end, after all the public negotiating the Cowboys did to try to convince Prescott to take a hometown discount, it was Cooper who sacrificed by taking less money to stick around with the team.
Don’t get me wrong: This is a massive deal. Cooper is only the second wideout to breach the $20 million barrier; only Julio Jones and his three-year, $66 million extension top Cooper’s average annual value. When you include the two years that were left on Jones’ prior extension, the Falcons star took home $87 million over five years. By overall value, Cooper now has the largest deal of any receiver.
Given that the Cowboys traded a first-round pick to acquire Cooper in fall 2018 and then rode several huge games from him to a winning streak and a division title, it’s difficult to imagine that any Cooper deal would have come in much below $20 million per season. He could have signed a deal when he was initially traded to the Cowboys or before Jones signed his extension last offseason, but by waiting until Dallas had no choice but to pay up, Cooper ended up getting a top-end deal. You get the feeling Prescott might be watching with admiration.
Monday, March 16
Vikings grade: B
Bills grade: B
Bills general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott have rightfully been lauded for building a selfless, winning culture over the past three seasons. The two former Panthers executives deserve plenty of credit for what they’ve done, but those plaudits generally ignored that the Bills nearly stepped on the land mine of 2019 with their attempt to trade for Antonio Brown. After signing Josh Norman earlier this offseason, the Bills are testing their culture’s ability to absorb talent by trading for a player who was live-tweeting his desire to leave the Vikings on Monday.
In terms of the on-field fit, there are few players who make more sense for the Bills than Diggs. When you consider his toughness between the numbers and his ability to make plays downfield, he should be an ideal No. 1 wideout for Josh Allen, who had the highest off-target percentage of any quarterback in football last season and didn’t do much throwing downfield. The only receivers who averaged more yards per route run in 2019 than Diggs were Michael Thomas and rookie Titans phenom A.J. Brown.
The Bills did just fine with John Brown and Cole Beasley as their top two wideouts in 2019, but the acquisition of Diggs pushes those two into more accurate roles as the second and third receivers. Buffalo suddenly has one of the best wide receiver groups in the league. The Bills were the league’s seventh-most run-heavy offense in 2019, but after adding Diggs, I would expect them to throw the ball more frequently in 2020. With a solid offensive line and deep positional groups at wide receiver and tight end, Allen has everything he could ask for.
Diggs’ contract is also team-friendly. The Bills will be acquiring the final four years of his extension, which have a total of $47.5 million remaining, none of which is presently guaranteed. I suspect he will start looking for a new deal as early as next offseason, especially if DeAndre Hopkins signs an extension with the Cardinals three years away from the end of his deal. The Bills should be able to get Diggs to play out the next two seasons for $23.5 million combined before looking at a new deal.
At the same time, I wonder whether the Bills and Diggs will turn out to be an amicable relationship. He was publicly frustrated by Kirk Cousins and the Vikings organization as a whole at different times over the past two seasons. Rumors of a possible Diggs trade have been circulating for more than a year, at times inspired by his missing practice. Diggs isn’t Antonio Brown, and plenty of teams have taken on mercurial wideouts and reached new heights after taking that risk, but this move seems at odds with what the Bills have built. This is a worthwhile, logical risk for the Bills, but if they struggle on offense, Diggs is going to take the blame.
If the Vikings were going to move on from Diggs, this was probably the time to do so. This trade frees up $5.5 million in cap room for them to try to work on a long-term deal for safety Anthony Harris, who was unexpectedly retained with the franchise tag Monday morning. The Vikings now have two first-round picks (Nos. 22 and 25) and two third-round picks in what appears to be a deep class of wide receivers. They aren’t going to pick somebody who will immediately be better than Diggs, but they are well-positioned to use one of their first-rounders or a second-rounder on a player who can step in as the No. 2 option behind Adam Thielen.
Furthermore, with the Vikings going heavy on two-tight-end sets and re-signing fullback C.J. Ham to an extension, I expect they’ll go with more two-tight-end personnel in 2020 and use a second wideout less frequently than they would have with Diggs in the fold. I would argue that having Diggs on the field is better than having Ham or Irv Smith Jr., but if Mike Zimmer wants the Vikings to be a ball-control, run-first offense, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for them team to pay two wideouts top-15 money. Given the public and private frustration Diggs expressed over the past two years, a fresh start probably made sense for both sides.
I can see the logic in this trade for both teams. The real losers of this trade, honestly, are the Texans. Diggs is an excellent player, and DeAndre Hopkins is a year older than his positional rival, but most onlookers would agree that Hopkins is a better player on the field and a less disruptive player off it. The Bills just sent the Vikings four picks, including a first-rounder, to acquire Diggs. Those picks are worth 21.9 points on Chase Stuart’s draft value chart, which is something close to the eighth overall pick in a typical draft.
Meanwhile, the Texans netted a second-round pick from the Cardinals and swapped fourth-round selections. Even if we don’t consider any time value for the Cardinals getting their fourth-round pick a year early, Houston came away with a pick in the middle of the second round for a better player and absorbed a player in David Johnson whose contract was $10 million or so underwater as part of the deal. If you thought the Odell Beckham Jr. deal was an outlier and the Texans would get a more realistic return for Hopkins, this trade proved otherwise.
The deal: Three years, $30 million
The Jets desperately need offensive linemen to try to protect Sam Darnold, but I’m not entirely sure Fant is one. He is a college basketball player who took only a handful of snaps at tight end, and the Seahawks tried Fant as their starting left tackle in 2016, with middling results over 664 snaps. He then tore his ACL during the summer of 2017, with Seattle eventually acquiring Duane Brown. When Fant returned, he typically served as a sixth offensive lineman and quasi-tight end, though he was an injury replacement for two games at right tackle in 2018 and four at left tackle in 2019, including a playoff win over the Eagles.
Fant looked better at left tackle when he was filling in for Brown last season, but he’s still nominally a project at tackle, and he should profile as the sort of player a team might bring in as a borderline starter or swing tackle. A desperate Jets team instead gave him $13.7 million in guarantees to start at one of their two tackle spots, likely on Darnold’s blind side. There aren’t many exciting options at tackle in this free-agent class, but Fant turns 28 this summer and has 16 full games under his belt at tackle, most of which weren’t very good. I can understand why the Jets hope Fant will be a solid starter, but it’s hard to think this secures or solves much for the Jets.
The deal: Four years, $44 million
I didn’t see this sort of deal coming for Glasgow, who never made a huge impression on me up front for Detroit. It looks better on closer review, however. Stats LLC credited Glasgow with zero sacks allowed in 2019, and ESPN’s pass block win rate metric assigned him just two sacks. Glasgow was 24th among guards in PBWR, and he missed only two games in four seasons in Detroit. The Lions were never a good run-blocking team with Glasgow in the lineup, as they ranked 20th twice and both 31st and 32nd in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metrics, but we can’t entirely pin that on Glasgow.
Broncos offensive line coach Mike Munchak is one of the best in the business, and given how much difficulty Denver has had fixing its offensive line in years past, Glasgow could be a solid regular for the team. One of the reasons you hire Munchak, though, is the hope that he’ll help you develop competent guys out of draft picks at a fraction of this cost. Glasgow has the eighth-largest average annual salary of any guard in the league on a multiyear contract, suggesting that he needs to be a Pro Bowler or something close to it to justify this deal. The Broncos probably could have used this money more to help on the defensive side of the ball.
The deal: Three years, $39 million
Just when you thought general manager Howie Roseman was going to head into the market for a top-tier cornerback, the Eagles’ first big splash in free agency is … a defensive lineman. This deal contains $26 million fully guaranteed, which means the 27-year-old Hargrave will likely be with the Eagles for at least the next two seasons.
I’m not sure nose tackle was an enormous need for the Eagles or a position they needed to fill with this sort of investment. Philly was fourth in rush defense DVOA last season, despite losing Malik Jackson to a season-ending injury in Week 1. Tim Jernigan and Hassan Ridgeway were already free agents, but the Eagles have Jackson coming back alongside Fletcher Cox for 2020, and two-down nose tackles aren’t usually this expensive.
Hargrave can be an impactful pass-rusher in addition to his run duties, and Jackson can take snaps outside as a defensive end, but if you had told me the Eagles were giving a defensive free agent $13 million per season, I would have guessed just about every other position on that side of the ball before landing on a nose tackle. Although I like Hargrave as a player and could see this sort of deal making sense for another team, this wasn’t the best use of Philadelphia’s cap space.
The deal: Five years, $82.5 million
After he spent the early part of his Cowboys career as an inconsistent safety, Dallas moved Jones back to cornerback full-time and reaped the benefits the past two seasons. He was a revelation in 2018 and continued to play very well in 2019. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, opposing quarterbacks completed an even 50% of their passes when Jones was the nearest defender in coverage last season, which was the seventh-best mark in the league for corners with at least 250 coverage snaps. Opposing quarterbacks mostly left Jones alone, as he was targeted on a mere 13.0% of pass attempts last season; the only corner with 250 or more coverage snaps who was targeted less frequently was the Chargers’ Casey Hayward.
There are some fair quibbles. Jones didn’t follow No. 1 receivers, as about one-third of his targets as the nearest defender in coverage came against the opposing team’s top wideout. More than 95% of his snaps came on the right side of the defense in both 2018 and 2019. He also hasn’t been a ball hawk, racking up two interceptions and three forced fumbles in five seasons with the Cowboys. Interception totals can fluctuate wildly from year to year, but the Dolphins can’t count on Jones to force a half-dozen takeaways in 2020.
Of course, if Xavien Howard intercepts seven passes again, the Dolphins will be just fine with the league’s most expensive cornerback duo. On one hand, signing Jones limits Howard’s value. Miami moved Howard to both sides of the field during his abbreviated five-game season in 2019, often to cover the opposing team’s top wide receiver. The Dolphins have to choose between playing sides, which would limit Howard’s value, or moving their corners to account for matchups, which would put Jones in an unfamiliar role.
At the same time, opposing teams now can’t hide their No. 1 wide receiver from a top-tier cornerback. The Dolphins aren’t exactly in a division with great receiving corps — the AFC East is currently deepest in the slot — but it’s interesting to see coach Brian Flores play things like one of the rare Patriots veterans who seems to have learned from what Bill Belichick values in New England.
Over the past decade, Belichick has repeatedly focused his investments in the secondary while letting talented edge rushers and defensive linemen leave in free agency. The names have changed over time, and Belichick’s defenses haven’t always been great, but he clearly espouses building from the secondary. With the NFL’s two highest-paid cornerbacks, the Dolphins will hope that great coverage will form the basis of a productive defense. Given that he is a 27-year-old corner with two years of excellent football under his belt, it’s no surprise that Jones just soared to the top of the cornerback market.
The deal: Two years, $16 million
I’m not sure how much Graham brings to the table at this point in his career. He’s one of the NFL’s two or three worst blocking tight ends, so we won’t bother there. As a receiver, his biggest impact with the Packers was typically on broken plays and when the other team would forget about him in coverage. The guy who used to be able to physically overwhelm defensive backs and run past linebackers wasn’t really there.
For all the chatter about how Graham was going to be a devastating threat for Aaron Rodgers in the red zone, he caught eight passes there in two seasons in Green Bay, five of which went for scores. Rodgers had an 84.4 passer rating with Graham on the field in the red zone, but that mark rose to 123.6 when Graham wasn’t out there.
Chicago coach Matt Nagy will presumably try to use Graham as his poor man’s Travis Kelce, which might have made more sense five years ago. It’s yet another attempt by general manager Ryan Pace to find a useful tight end. Pace took Adam Shaheen in the middle of the second round in the 2017 draft, but after one year, the Bears gave Trey Burton a huge contract. Both Burton and Shaheen have struggled to produce and stay healthy for any length of time, which has now led Chicago to Graham. With Graham turning 34, I’m not optimistic that he’ll turn things around and justify nearly top-tier money, with $9 million in guarantees.
The deal: Three years, $45 million
The Giants badly needed help at cornerback after they moved on from Eli Apple and Janoris Jenkins in consecutive seasons. The idea of going into 2020 with struggling second-year corner DeAndre Baker as their No. 1 option must have terrified general manager Dave Gettleman, so it’s no surprise that he went into the free-agent market for a player he drafted when Carolina’s depth chart at corner was looking bare in the spring of 2016.
Panthers fans never seemed to warm to Bradberry as a star. In part, that was because of how he arrived in the league, given that he was drafted to replace Josh Norman after Gettleman released Carolina’s then-star corner from his franchise tag. Bradberry was typically solid but rarely made huge plays; he had eight interceptions in four seasons, and they generated a mere 38 return yards in the process. In a division in which the Panthers were stuck facing Michael Thomas, Julio Jones and Mike Evans six times per season, Bradberry was good enough to hold his own but not good enough to routinely shadow or shut down the best receivers in football. (To be clear: That’s an unrealistic expectation.)
Although the Panthers were a mess on defense in 2019, Bradberry was their best player. Quarterbacks targeting him didn’t have much fun, as he allowed a passer rating of just 73.1 on 89 targets as the closest defender in coverage. The only cornerback who was targeted more frequently than Bradberry while posting a stingier passer rating was Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, and stars such as Marlon Humphrey and Darius Slay were in a similar ballpark.
Heavy target rates are nothing new for Bradberry. From 2016 to 2019, Bradberry was targeted 380 times as the nearest defender in coverage, more than anybody else in football. You could interpret this as a sign that opposing quarterbacks weren’t afraid to target him, but the other guys just below Bradberry are considered to be among the best corners in football, including Jalen Ramsey (370 targets), Slay (342), Logan Ryan (340) and Gilmore (327).
With players typically choosing to take three-year deals in hopes of hitting the market again after the league negotiates new TV deals, Bradberry was able to come away with $32 million in guarantees and will still be able to hit the market again at 29. His $15 million average annual salary comes in just under Xavien Howard‘s deal, which is at the top of the market at $15.5 million, but this is a fair deal for both sides.
The deal: Three years, $21 million
The primary reserve for the Bears at inside linebacker the past four seasons, Kwiatkoski filled in for an injured Danny Trevathan in 2019 and proceeded to do a worthy impersonation of the former Broncos standout. Kwiatkoski did a little bit of everything as a pass defender, chipping in with an interception, three sacks and eight tackles for loss. Chicago’s defense improved its passer rating by nearly 10 points when Kwiatkowski was on the field, as opposed to Trevathan.
On the other hand, the Bears allowed 3.8 yards per carry with Trevathan on the field but 4.5 yards per carry when Kwiatkoski replaced him. Their first-down rate and successful play rate gaps were narrower, but as an undersized linebacker who was recruited to West Virginia as a safety, Kwiatkoski still profiles better against the pass than he does against the run. With the Raiders a mess at linebacker in a division in which they have to face Travis Kelce, Hunter Henry and Noah Fant, taking a shot on Kwiatkoski’s range makes some sense.
The deal: Three years, $18 million
I often argue that teams should pursue backup quarterbacks who look and play like their starters. There’s a little bit of Baker Mayfield in Keenum. Like Mayfield, Keenum had his success in college as an Air Raid quarterback. Like Mayfield, Keenum is undersized for the position at 6-foot-1. And like Mayfield, Keenum had a season that made the current Browns braintrust think they could go a long way with him at quarterback.
Of course, that one season — 2017 — is a huge outlier in Keenum’s career, when he took over for an injured Sam Bradford and pushed the Vikings all the way to the NFC Championship Game. In the ensuing two years in Denver and Washington, Keenum has been stuck in bad situations. The Broncos had a terrible offensive line, and Washington saw Keenum as a stopgap after ownership decided to draft Dwayne Haskins.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski was the quarterbacks coach in Minnesota with Keenum in 2017, so it’s no surprise that the Browns targeted Keenum to serve as the backup behind Mayfield. Keenum is just good enough to give the Browns a chance to win if Mayfield gets hurt and just uninteresting enough to avoid shaking Mayfield’s confidence. That’s exactly the line you want to tow with your backup quarterback.
49ers grade: B-
Colts grade: C+
This is a surprising move for both sides that could end up revealing one of the biggest offseason dominoes to come. With their sacrificing their first-round pick, it’s clear the Colts don’t plan to go all-in to trade up and grab a quarterback in the draft. Without that 13th pick around to draft a passer, it appears likely that the Colts will pursue their much-desired addition at quarterback in free agency, with Philip Rivers the subject of most rumors. It wouldn’t be shocking if this were followed by a Rivers contract in the hours or days to come.
In adding Buckner, the Colts are continuing to add pieces to a front four that general manager Chris Ballard has stocked with second-round picks. Indy was hoping low-cost veterans such as Margus Hunt and Denico Autry would serve as interior disrupters after impressing in 2018, but both players took a step backward last season, and the Colts released Hunt on Monday.
Even before the 49ers broke out on defense in 2019, Buckner emerged as a difference-maker on the interior. The former No. 7 overall pick racked up 38 knockdowns across his first two seasons, then broke out in a more traditional way with a 12-sack campaign in 2018. Buckner finished last season with only 7.5 sacks, but the Oregon product undoubtedly helped create opportunities for Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead on the edge.
Indirectly, the 49ers have chosen to retain Armstead over Buckner, with the 49ers closing in on a five-year deal for Armstead on Monday. In a vacuum, that would be a surprise; Buckner would be considered the better player and is certainly the better defender on the interior, while Armstead’s success last season came as a defensive end when Dee Ford was out of the lineup. Trading Buckner and re-signing Armstead likely would lock Armstead in as a full-time defensive tackle while the Niners rotate players such as D.J. Jones alongside him.
It isn’t quite that simple. It’s more like choosing Armstead and a first-round pick over Buckner and the likely third- or fourth-round compensatory pick the 49ers would have received if Armstead had left in free agency. The 49ers would be able to use the 13th pick to grab a replacement for Buckner, receiver Emmanuel Sanders or a long-term replacement for offensive tackle Joe Staley. More likely, they’ll use the pick to trade down and recoup some of the selections they dealt away for Ford and Sanders over the past season.
In addition, though we don’t have the terms of either deal, Armstead’s contract will be smaller than the massive deal Buckner appears to be getting from the Colts. Adam Schefter’s report said Buckner will make $21 million per season and be the second-highest-paid defensive tackle in the league behind Aaron Donald. Buckner was under contract for one more year, but the 49ers might very well have preferred to keep Armstead and avoid devoting that sort of market-crashing deal to a defensive lineman, especially with Ford already on a big contract and Bosa’s deal coming up in a couple of years.
At the same time, though, San Francisco doesn’t have a replacement for Buckner. Armstead is not the same sort of player and hasn’t been anywhere near as good for as long as Buckner has. It would have been reasonable for the Niners to let Armstead leave and sign a run-stopping defensive end to rotate with Ford on early downs at about half of where Armstead’s deal will eventually land. There just aren’t many human beings on the planet who can emulate Buckner. I wonder if the 49ers will go after someone such as Ndamukong Suh on a short-term deal to take over on the interior.
Meanwhile, as freaky as Buckner is, the Colts are giving up an enormous haul when you factor in the pick and Buckner’s new contract. Defensive tackle is a spot in which teams have been able to sign players such as Suh, Gerald McCoy and Malik Jackson to more modest contracts in free agency in recent years. Buckner is excellent, but he isn’t on that transcendent Donald level, and that’s where his deal is going to land after you factor in the opportunity cost of trading away a first-round pick.
The deal: Three years, $42 million
Regarded as the best right tackle on the market, Conklin is a free agent only because the Titans declined his fifth-year option during what was otherwise an excellent 2019 offseason from general manager Jon Robinson. You can understand what Robinson was thinking at the time. Conklin tore an ACL during the 2017 playoff loss to the Patriots, wasn’t ready to start the 2018 season and was limited during a frustrating campaign before he hit injured reserve because of another knee injury.
We obviously haven’t seen Conklin’s imaging, but you have to figure it isn’t great. Otherwise, it seems likely that the Titans would have taken the risk of picking up his option after drafting him with the No. 8 overall pick of the 2016 draft, given that teams typically retain even borderline starters. While the first-team All-Pro nod Conklin netted during his rookie season might have been generous, given how frequently the Titans handed him blocking help, he has been above average or better in three of his first four pro seasons.
Conklin is regarded as an excellent run-blocking right tackle, which shouldn’t be a surprise, given Tennessee’s run-heavy attack. His pass blocking is up for more debate. By Stats LLC’s numbers, Conklin allowed just three sacks last season, which would be an excellent figure for a starting tackle. ESPN’s pass block win rate analysis isn’t quite as sanguine, ranking him 59th among NFL linemen while blaming him for 10 sacks in 2019, a far less impressive number. I would put the real number somewhere in the middle.
What was interesting about Conklin’s 2019, at least as far as offensive line stances can be interesting, is that he responded to the knee injury by changing how he lined up before snaps. After lining up in a relatively traditional stance before the 2019 campaign, with a hand in the dirt and both feet facing the line of scrimmage, he came back with a totally different stance this past season. In 2019, Conklin commonly lined up standing nearly upright like a receiver, with one foot facing forward and the other facing the sideline at almost a 90-degree angle. Conklin made it work, but I wonder whether the Browns will try to get him to go back to his old stance.
The good news for Conklin is that he’ll have an excellent offensive line coach in Bill Callahan, who moved to Cleveland after his time with Washington. If Conklin can stay healthy, he’s also going to get another crack at free agency when things might be far more lucrative. As Schefter mentioned, we’re seeing many of the free agents today take shorter-term deals in the hope of cashing in on one more contract in 2022 or 2023, after the league presumably negotiates new TV deals and the salary cap rises dramatically.
With $30 million fully guaranteed, this is a straightforward deal for the Browns, whose analytics-friendly brain trust finally erased a mistake the regime made when Sashi Brown was in charge. Those Browns let star right tackle Mitchell Schwartz leave in free agency for what ended up as a bargain deal with the Chiefs to gain a compensatory pick. Former general manager John Dorsey signed Chris Hubbard to replace Schwartz, which went disastrously. (Schwartz, of course, just won his first Super Bowl with the Chiefs.)
Now, the Browns likely will cut Hubbard to install Conklin as their starting right tackle for the next couple of years. Getting Conklin without having to guarantee three years or top Trent Brown‘s average annual salary is a good bit of negotiating for new GM Andrew Berry. If the Browns can land a left tackle in the draft — they have pick No. 10 — they’ll come away from this offseason with everything that should have been on the shopping list for Baker Mayfield.
Falcons grade: C+
Ravens grade: B
While the Ravens were probably hoping for more from Hurst after former general manager Ozzie Newsome drafted him with the 25th pick of the 2018 draft, this is an exciting return for a guy who was likely third on Baltimore’s tight-end depth chart. The Ravens will come away with the 55th and 157th picks in April’s draft for Hurst and the 134th pick; when you consider David Johnson‘s contract, Baltimore almost definitely got more for Hurst than the Texans did for DeAndre Hopkins.
Hurst was a useful reserve to have in the fold behind Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle, but the Ravens will likely be able to find a feasible third tight end bouncing around free agency or somewhere in the draft. They now have extra second- and third-round picks in the draft, which is fun for a team coming off a 14-2 season and that has the reigning NFL MVP on a rookie deal.
We’re only two years removed from the Ravens drafting Hurst two rounds ahead of Andrews, and while Andrews has proven to be the more valuable player, Hurst still has time to prove he’s a starting-caliber tight end. He initially lost his job to Andrews in training camp in 2018 after suffering a stress fracture in his foot, and the two have been in an Andrews-heavy timeshare ever since. Andrews has played through injuries himself, which is the only reason Baltimore might have been hesitant to move on from Hurst without a significant pick being attached.
Hurst, unsurprisingly, has been more productive when Andrews has been on the sideline. Alongside Andrews on the field, Hurst has been targeted on just 16.7% of his routes and averaged a mere 1.3 yards per route run. Without Andrews in the huddle, though, he has been targeted on 23.3% of his routes and averaged 2.2 yards per route. Those marks would rank 10th and sixth in the league, respectively, among regular tight ends.
The Falcons are acquiring Hurst to serve as their replacement for Austin Hooper, who left for the Browns earlier in the day. Trading for Hurst makes some sense, given their cap restraints and that the South Carolina product is due less than $3.5 million combined over the next two years and would have a team-friendly fifth-year option available in 2023. If Hurst can be the guy we saw when Andrews wasn’t on the field, the Falcons should be able to continue on offense without skipping much of a beat.
I’d have two concerns. One is that Hurst was an over-aged draftee after spending two years in the baseball minor leagues with the Pirates. He was drafted as he was about to turn 25 and will already be 27 by the time the 2020 season starts. He’s actually more than a year older than Hooper, who just hit free agency. The track record of over-aged draft picks who don’t immediately turn into viable starters is not great.
The other problem is that the Falcons are devoting yet another one of the precious assets they have to fixing a problem on the offensive side of the ball. The defense has been a mess for several years now, and while it’s clear that they realize changes need to be made on that side of the ball, they’ve now devoted another high draft pick to an offensive fix. Atlanta had an extra second-round pick courtesy of the Mohamed Sanu trade, but devoting its first-round pick and both of their second-rounders to the defense wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world. As it is, the Falcons are taking a reasonable risk here to fill what was looming as a hole on their roster at tight end.
The deal: Three years, $30 million
The last first-round pick of the Rex Ryan era in Buffalo and one of the few players left on the roster from the Doug Whaley days, Lawson missed a chunk of his 2016 rookie year after undergoing shoulder surgery and never seemed to get right after returning. Coach Sean McDermott & Co. then kept Lawson in a part-time role for the next two seasons before declining the Clemson product’s fifth-year option. In what was expected to be a lame-duck year, Lawson emerged as a valuable rotation defender on the edge, racking up 6.5 sacks and 18 knockdowns while playing 47% of the defensive snaps under coordinator Leslie Frazier.
I’m not sure Lawson will ever hit the heights that were expected of him coming out of high school or college, but as a useful run defender on the edge who can occasionally get after the quarterback, he should be productive as a poor man’s Arik Armstead. He’ll make less than Armstead on this deal, but the Dolphins are still paying Lawson like they expect him to be a starter, given that this three-year deal includes $21 million guaranteed at signing and could max out at $36 million. It’s similar to the deal the Dolphins handed Ereck Flowers, but Lawson has a higher floor and a higher ceiling than the offensive lineman. He’ll be penciled in as a starting edge defender for the Dolphins, who rotate between three- and four-man fronts.
The deal: Four years, $22 million
In a move that might bring an end to Jason Witten‘s storied career with the Cowboys, Dallas decided to use its free time after franchising Dak Prescott to lock up a restricted free agent. Jarwin is a high-end athlete who moved around the formation at Oklahoma State before settling in as a backup tight end. Dallas mostly keeps Jarwin as an in-line option; offensive coordinator Kellen Moore lined Jarwin up outside only 9% of the time in 2019, while 23% of his snaps (and 39% of his targets) came out of the slot.
If Jarwin can successfully move around the formation and threaten teams as a move tight end, it would help the Cowboys overcome possibly losing Amari Cooper and give Prescott an extra weapon. This deal is relatively modest and could still make sense if Jarwin ends up sticking in a secondary role, but it suggests that the Cowboys think Jarwin is capable of more. At the very least, he can stretch opposing defenses up the seam in a way that the 37-year-old Witten can’t.
The deal: Two years, $27 million
Quietly, the Buccaneers had one of the best defenses in all of football last season. When you account for Jameis Winston throwing pick-sixes and placing defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ unit into impossible situations, the Bucs finished the year fifth in defensive DVOA, just ahead of the Bills, Vikings and Bears. Shaq Barrett having a career year was a huge part of that turnaround, but the Buccaneers also improved after Pierre-Paul returned from suffering a broken neck during the offseason.
Their splits with and without JPP on the field were significant. The Bucs allowed opposing quarterbacks to average just 6.3 yards per attempt and post a passer rating of 83.0 with Pierre-Paul on the field, which is like facing Mason Rudolph every week. Without JPP, those numbers rose to 7.7 yards per pass and a passer rating of 97.4, which is closer to Deshaun Watson.
Unsurprisingly, the Bucs were better at getting after the quarterback with Pierre-Paul on the field. Their sack rate rose from 5.0% without JPP to 7.6% with him, while their pressure rate jumped from 24.6% to 31.6%, a significant improvement. He chipped in with 8.5 sacks and 16 knockdowns, impressive numbers for a player who played only 10 games in 2019.
Pierre-Paul’s injury history is checkered. In addition to the broken neck and the famous fireworks disaster, JPP underwent back surgery early in his career with the Giants to fix a herniated disk. I’m not sure I would want to bet on the 31-year-old playing in the league five years from now, but this is a reasonable two-year pact for Tampa Bay, even if we assume most or all of it is practically guaranteed.
Cardinals grade: B+
Texans grade: F
Even by Bill O’Brien’s standards, the Cardinals and Texans made a stunning trade on Monday afternoon. Houston traded away arguably its second-most valuable player in star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, netting oft-injured running back David Johnson and a second-round pick in the process.
While I appreciate O’Brien’s thoughtfulness in giving us a fascinating swap to discuss in these sport-free times, I feel for Texans fans who just lost a franchise icon in the prime of his career. Here are my thoughts on what might be the biggest trade we’ll see this offseason.
The deal: Four years, $44 million
The highest-paid player at a position isn’t always the best player at the position. Heading into free agency, players like Kyle Rudolph, Trent Brown and Xavier Rhodes had the largest average annual salaries at their respective positions. Hooper is unquestionably a starting-caliber tight end, but is he close to the NFL’s best tight end? He has ranked seventh among tight ends in fantasy points each of the past two seasons, which included a 16-game stint in 2018 and a 13-game run in 2019.
A significant chunk of Hooper’s production over that two-year stretch has been a product of garbage time. Everyone has their own definition of what that concept means, but let’s look at drives that began with a sub-10% win expectancy for the offense. Hooper has 50 catches for 522 yards and five touchdowns in those situations over the past two years; no other tight end topped 35 catches or 414 receiving yards over that same time frame in similarly desperate situations. This isn’t unique to Hooper, as Julio Jones leads all wide receivers in the same category, but it’s the sort of production that plays better on paper than it does in reality.
It can be difficult to parse out the impact of an individual blocker, but it doesn’t appear that Hooper has made a big difference in that category for the Falcons. Over the past two years, the Falcons have averaged 4.11 yards per carry with him on the field … and an identical 4.11 yards per carry with him on the sideline or inactive. Their first-down rate ticks up slightly, going from 24.1% with Hooper on the field to 22.5% without him.
On the other hand, the Falcons have been a much more efficient passing attack with Hooper on the field. Since 2018, Matt Ryan has posted a passer rating of 105.5 and a QBR of 68.8 with his No. 1 tight end on the field. Those marks have fallen to 86.7 and 49.8, respectively, without him in the lineup.
What was interesting about Hooper’s breakout 2019 season was just how uncommon his usage rate was for a tight end. More than 50% of his receptions and receiving yards came outside of the numbers last season. Among tight ends with at least 35 catches, only three other players fit that bill: Jack Doyle and quasi-wide receivers Mike Gesicki and Jimmy Graham. Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter loved getting the ball to Hooper in the flat, and while I don’t think there’s anything stopping Hooper from going over the middle — his splits were far more typical in 2018 — he’ll likely have a more common usage pattern in Cleveland.
New Browns coach Kevin Stefanski used plenty of multiple-tight-end sets during his lone full season as the offensive coordinator with the Vikings. Minnesota went with two or more tight ends on more than 56% of its offensive snaps, the second-highest rate in football. It was in part a way to substitute for the absence of Adam Thielen, who played only 43% of the offensive snaps while struggling with a hamstring injury. Hooper’s signing could serve as a way to account for the absence of Jarvis Landry, who is questionable for Week 1 after undergoing hip surgery in February. Hooper should play the Rudolph role in Stefanski’s offense, with David Njoku getting his final shot with the new Cleveland regime to serve as the Irv Smith Jr.
Hooper is now getting paid like a superstar tight end. In reality, he has been something closer to a safe pair of hands. He hasn’t shown any extraordinary ability to get downfield or make things happen after the catch; while Falcons fans will remember his 88-yard catch-and-run against a blown coverage in Week 1 of 2017, he has ranked 19th in air yards per attempt and 22nd in yards after catch over the past two seasons.
Unsurprisingly given the demand for tight end talent around the league and a relatively thin pool of talent in free agency and April’s draft, Hooper’s new deal resets what had been a stagnant tight end market. Graham had previously set the mark by averaging $10 million per season on both of his deals with the Saints and Packers, but Hooper becomes the first tight end to top $10 million per year on a multiseason pact. The Browns are paying for game-changing production, but they’re more likely to get something closer to solid, steady work.
The deal: Three years, $30 million
What a difference a year makes! After flaming out in spectacular fashion with the Giants and struggling with the Jaguars, Flowers got what was likely going to be his last chance to make an NFL impression with Washington. Moving inside to guard, he put together a solid if unspectacular full season at his new position. Flowers’ sack and penalty numbers were both down, and he finished right next to former teammate Brandon Scherff in ESPN’s pass block win rate metric at 63rd.
Flowers turned his NFL career around. Is he likely to keep that up? We can’t be sure. For one, he spent 2019 learning underneath excellent offensive line coach Bill Callahan, who has a long track record of getting the most out of his charges. Callahan is now in Cleveland, and Flowers’ new offensive line coach is Steve Marshall, who struggled to develop linemen during his time with the Jets. Flowers’ indifference toward preparation during his time with the Giants was well-known; he can’t go back to his old habits now that he has signed a multiyear deal with nearly $20 million guaranteed.
The Dolphins desperately need help just about everywhere along their offensive line, which is why I can’t be enormously critical of this deal. Miami needed to add a minimum of three new starters this offseason, if not four, and Flowers will be the first of the bunch. I wonder if the team will try him out at left tackle given the need there, though the best scenario for Flowers would be to remain at guard. The Dolphins see upside here, and this deal will be fine if the Flowers from 2019 shows up and does his job, but this is a lot of guaranteed money for a player who has one year of competent play under a great coach across five pro seasons.
The deal: Two years, $66 million
If 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was licking his chops and waiting for his former Washington protégé to hit the market next offseason, the defending NFC champion coach will have to do whatever the opposite of licking his chops is for a couple of more seasons. To help create cap space for their star-laden roster, the Vikings essentially committed themselves to Cousins through the 2022 season.
The structure of this deal is what keeps the Vikings in the Cousins business. As is the case with the Ryan Tannehill extension, Cousins has his 2020 and 2021 base salaries guaranteed now, while his 2022 base salary of $35 million becomes fully guaranteed at the start of next season. The Vikings could theoretically cut Cousins next spring, but they would still owe him $56 million in guaranteed base salaries over the next two seasons. The Antonio Brown trade reset our expectations of what teams are willing to absorb in terms of dead money, but Minnesota almost certainly isn’t cutting Cousins.
It’s unclear whether Cousins will have a no-trade clause, as he did with his first contract. The Vikings could theoretically trade him without incurring a significant dead cap figure, at least in 2022, but Minnesota fans should prepare for three more years with him on their roster. In the end, he will take home $153 million over five years, which is a fine riposte to a Washington franchise that didn’t think he was worth anything close to that.
This contract essentially keeps Cousins in the same ballpark we saw when he signed his first deal with the Vikings. At this point, it seems pretty clear that few people regard Cousins as a top-five quarterback, even if he’s getting top-five money. It’s also clear that he’s good enough for the Vikings to win with, especially when they ramped up their play-action usage and installed a Shanahan-style rushing attack under Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak last season. Stefanski is now in Cleveland, so Kubiak will take over as the coordinator. This deal locks in a high floor for the Vikings, even if the ceiling isn’t what you would hope for with this sort of money and guarantee. That’s about an average deal.
The deal: Two years, $11 million
While I’m a little skeptical of the Christian Kirksey deal given positional scarcity, buying relatively low on Wagner is a reasonable Plan B if the Packers plan on letting Bryan Bulaga leave. Our Field Yates reported that this deal contains a $3.5 million signing bonus, and if there’s nothing guaranteed after Year 1, this is a low-cost addition given the lack of tackles on the market and the increasing comfort teams have with giving right tackles top-tier money.
Wagner is three years removed from getting what was the market-setting deal for right tackles at five years and $47.5 million from the Lions. At that price, Wagner disappointed the Lions. Injuries impacted his play, but after allowing seven sacks across four seasons with the Ravens, Wagner allowed six sacks in 2017 and 6.5 sacks in 2018. He was 107th in ESPN’s pass block win rate statistic, which credited the 30-year-old with 10 sacks allowed.
At this price tag, though, Wagner only needs to be a passable starting tackle or an above-average swing option to justify his deal. The Packers have three linemen for two guard spots with Elgton Jenkins, Lane Taylor and Billy Turner; I would expect Turner and Wagner to compete for the right tackle job in camp. Even given his decline in Detroit, Wagner should be the better option.
The deal: Two years, $13 million
Brian Gutekunst signaled his plans to stay active in free agency for the third consecutive year as Packers general manager. His moves on offense (Jimmy Graham, Billy Turner) have been a mess, while the signings he made to shore up the defense (Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos) looked brilliant until the NFC Championship Game. The Packers finished the year 15th in defensive DVOA and 23rd against the run, so after the 49ers gashed them for 285 rushing yards and four touchdowns, you would figure Gutekunst would target somebody who could help stop the league’s best rushing attacks.
When he’s healthy, Kirksey is capable of making a difference there. Over the past two years, the Browns were better with their starting linebacker in the lineup than they were without him. Cleveland allowed 4.6 yards per carry and a 25.9% first-down rate over that time frame with Kirksey on the field. Without him, they allowed 4.9 yards per carry and a 27.9% first-down rate. Of course, even that 4.6 yards per carry mark isn’t exactly thrilling, and the success rate by expected points added (EPA) for Kirksey was virtually identical. The Browns allowed successful runs 56% of the time with him on the field and 55.7% of the time without him.
Injuries are an even bigger concern, given that he missed 23 games over the past two seasons with hamstring and pectoral injuries. Kirksey is listed at 235 pounds but might be best as a 4-3 weakside linebacker. The Packers are in a 3-4 front when they go with their base defense, which is where they’re hoping Kirksey will make a difference. He’ll be moving to play inside linebacker in that scheme, and while he was successful in a 3-4 base during his healthier years with the Browns, there are reasonable concerns that his body might struggle to hold up after the injuries of 2018 and 2019.
The reality is also that teams typically find early-down linebackers available for relatively cheap without having to commit $8 million per year, as the Packers did to sign Kirksey before free agency. A healthy, productive Kirksey is probably worth about this much, and we have to see how much of this deal is guaranteed, but this seems like a problem the Packers could have waited to fill with a post-June 1 cut or a draft pick. It’s money I would have rather used to keep around offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga.
UPDATE: This deal actually came in as a two-year, $13 million pact with just a $4 million signing bonus guaranteed at the time of signing; I like it more for the Packers under those circumstances and have adjusted the grade.
The deal: Two years, $23 million
While there were rumors that one of the organizations stocked with former Patriots coaches and executives would make a run at McCourty, the presence of twin brother Jason and coach Bill Belichick made it more likely that the 10-year veteran would return back to his only professional home. The two-time Pro Bowler was one of the best safeties in football a year ago, picking off five passes for the first time since 2012 while allowing a passer rating of just 50.6 as the nearest defender in coverage. This is hardly top-of-the-market money for a safety, so while McCourty is likely to have most or all of this deal guaranteed up front, it’s a logical win-win for both sides.
One other subtle thing about this deal is the structure. McCourty was New England’s second-most-pressing free agent behind Tom Brady and the only other player the team was likely to consider signing to a deal north of $10 million per year. If the Pats were desperately concerned about their cap space, they would have given McCourty a longer deal with a big signing bonus to try to create short-term cap room. By handing him a two-year deal without any extraneous years, it’s possible the Patriots are confident no massive contract from another team is coming down the pike for Brady.
The deal: Three years, $36 million
Roby was impressive in a bounce-back season for the Texans last year. Playing primarily in the slot, he was Houston’s best cornerback on either side of his midseason hamstring ailment. The injury cost him five games, but he came back by busting through N’Keal Harry for a pick-six of Tom Brady in Houston’s 28-22 win over the Patriots on Dec. 1. A relatively abysmal Texans pass defense declined by 12.2 points of passer rating and 14.5 points of Total QBR with Roby sidelined last season. Sportradar charting suggests Roby went from allowing a passer rating of 113.8 in his final year with the Broncos down to a 79.9 mark in his debut with the Texans. That’s like going from Lamar Jackson to Kyle Allen.
If we expect the Texans to keep Roby in the slot, this would be a record deal for a slot corner, after guys like Bryce Callahan, Tavon Young and Justin Coleman signed deals with average annual salaries between $7 million and $9 million a year ago. Roby hitting $12 million per year is a huge leap from that group, and the Texans are likely to be locked into Lonnie Johnson Jr. and Gareon Conley as their outside corners in 2020, which would keep Roby inside. I’d feel better if this had come in somewhere closer to $30 million, but I suspect it might look like a better contract once we see the rest of the cornerback market play out in the days to come.
The deal: Two years, $33 million
Castonzo has been one of the best left tackles in football over the past two seasons, which is why the Colts must have been terrified while he considered retirement this offseason. The 31-year-old eventually decided to return, and the Colts were able to bring back what would have been the best left tackle on the market before the legal tampering period opened by signing Castonzo to a two-year deal.
This is just about top-of-the-line tackle money, albeit on a two-year deal. The only tackles with larger average annual salaries are Trent Brown and Lane Johnson, whose big-money extension was really a cap-stretching exercise with mostly unguaranteed salaries that wouldn’t even start kicking in until 2026. Getting Castonzo under contract at that price is an easy move for the Colts and their oodles of cap room to swallow.
Where this move could really help, though, is in creating flexibility for Indianapolis on draft day. Without Castonzo, it almost surely would have needed to use the 13th pick on a left tackle. Now, while the team could still use its first-rounder on an eventual replacement for Castonzo, it can go best player available with the selection. General manager Chris Ballard also has the 34th and 44th picks in Round 2, which could be enough for the Colts to move up from 13 if they’re in love with one of the non-Joe Burrow quarterbacks in this year’s draft. If the Colts eventually end up with Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert, you’ll likely have the Castonzo deal to thank.
Sunday, March 15
The deal: Four years, $118 million
I’m not sure whether Tannehill voted in favor of the new CBA, but if we’re looking for players who benefited from the league and its players coming to terms on a new agreement, he is the first and likely the most significant of the offseason so far. With the Titans limited to one franchise or transition tag in their attempts to keep Tannehill and running back Derrick Henry, they were forced to make a sweetheart deal to make sure one of the two signed a contract before the franchise deadline. With Henry the platonic ideal of a franchise tag candidate, it was always more likely that the Titans would lock up Tannehill before Monday’s deadline.
The key to this deal is the structure. Tannehill has the first two years of his deal guaranteed, which wasn’t a surprise. It would have taken a small miracle to get him under contract on a long-term deal with just one guaranteed season. The real key is that third season. He has a $29 million base salary in 2022, which is guaranteed now for injury and becomes fully guaranteed in March 2021.
In other words, this is either a one-year deal for $62 million or a three-year deal for $91 million. That’s a staggering turnaround for Tannehill. This time last year, the Dolphins had to pay $5 million of a $7 million restructured deal for him just to get the Titans to attach a fourth-round pick in return. Now, he has set a record for practically guaranteed new money, at $91 million, topping the $90 million Russell Wilson got in his extension with the Seahawks.
If the Tannehill who shocked everyone in 2019 returns and shows up for the Titans in the years to come, this will be a fair deal. In the big picture, though, it’s tough to count on that happening. For one, he missed 24 games in his final three seasons with the Dolphins, thanks to a pair of a torn ACLs and a shoulder injury. He hadn’t missed a game before 2015 and was healthy throughout his 10-game starting run with the Titans last season, but any sort of injury could make this a catastrophic deal for Tennessee.
Tannehill continued to take a gaudy sack rate for the Titans last season, going down 9.8% of the time, which doesn’t help his chances of staying healthy. He posted the league’s best QBR when unpressured but dropped all the way to 30th in QBR when defenses got pressure. That drop-off is concerning when you consider that this deal makes it even more likely that the Titans will lose starting right tackle Jack Conklin in free agency.
A healthy Tannehill was better than people remember for the Dolphins, but there was nothing in his track record to suggest that he was going to lead all passers in completion percentage, yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt and passer rating. In 2019, he led all passers in yards per attempt by a full yard and posted the eighth-best era-adjusted yards per attempt since the merger. He posted the best passer rating of any quarterback on play-action in the past 10 years, with a nearly perfect mark of 147.3.
When you strip out screens, Tannehill threw the second-longest average pass of the past 10 years (9.7 air yards per throw) and averaged the 14th-most yards per completion (14.2) of any quarterback in that time frame. The marks ahead of him in that category include dramatic, unsustainable partial campaigns from quarterbacks such as Nick Foles, Tim Tebow and Robert Griffin. Tannehill is better than those guys, but we saw something close to a 95th-percentile season from a guy who the league (Tennessee included) thought was a backup 12 months ago.
The most likely outcome of this deal is that the Titans get something closer to the guy who didn’t move the needle in Miami, rather than the quarterback who blazed through the league for most of 2020, and that isn’t good value. This is especially true when you consider Tennessee’s espoused offensive philosophy in the context of Henry. If this is a team that’s really built around Henry and play-action, why are you paying your quarterback what amounts to top-five money and locking him up for three years? I’m not sure the Titans had a better option, but it’s easier to imagine this deal turning into a painful one for Tennessee than it is to imagine Tannehill keeping up his magical 2019 for three more seasons.
Jaguars grade: C
Ravens grade: B+
That dominant 2017 Jaguars defense is down to Abry Jones, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue, who wants to be traded. You can’t really fault the Jaguars for dumping too much salary, given that they appear to be far from competing, and general manager Dave Caldwell has created much-needed cap space by moving on from Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Marcell Dareus, but what’s left to be excited about here? The Jaguars are in yet another full-on rebuild, and though they parted ways with Tom Coughlin, Caldwell was the one who made the vast majority of the disappointing first-round picks and free-agent signings from the most recent rebuild. Even given that this move makes sense in the short term, are there reasons to be optimistic about the rebuild to come?
On the other hand, if you want to look at an organization that seems to get things right, look at what the Ravens did to make this trade happen. They developed kicker Kaare Vedvik last summer behind Justin Tucker, even though there was no chance of Vedvik winning the starting job. They successfully convinced the Vikings to send a fifth-round pick to acquire Vedvik, who didn’t make the roster and then cost the Jets a win in Week 1. The Ravens then sent that fifth-round pick to the Jaguars to acquire Campbell. One team spends big to prop up Blake Bortles and can’t hold on to the few players it gets right. The other turns a backup kicker into a bona fide defensive star.
The 33-year-old Campbell posted his lowest sack total since 2012 last season, but his 25 knockdowns point toward his making a more significant impact than that raw sack total. Opposing passers improved their ratings by more than 14 points when Campbell was on the sideline. The Jags also allowed a disappointing 4.9 yards per carry with Campbell on the field, but that mark rose to a ridiculous 5.8 yards per rush without him in the lineup.
His arrival makes it likely that the Ravens will move on from underrated nose tackle Michael Pierce, who should command a significant deal in free agency. The Ravens will have to decide whether they want to make Brandon Williams a full-time nose tackle in Pierce’s absence or acquire another player, but both Campbell and Williams have the versatility to play different roles and techniques within Baltimore’s defensive fronts. With the Ravens using five or more defensive backs nearly 90% of the time last season, I suspect we’ll see more four-man fronts with Campbell serving as a devastating interior rusher.
Baltimore will restructure the final year of Campbell’s deal as part of an extension to try to reduce his $15 million cap hit; I would figure they’ll give him a second guaranteed year as part of this deal. Even given that the Jaguars weren’t going anywhere with Campbell and needed to create cap room, they needed to get more than a late fifth-round selection for a true difference-maker on defense. This is an easy win for the Ravens and yet another reason to think the Jags are years away from competing for another playoff berth.
Tuesday, March 10
The deal: Four years, $17.7 million
On scoring plays, John Christian Ka’iminoeauloameka’ikeokekumupa’a Fairbairn hasn’t been anything special for the Texans. Over the past three years, he has hit 83.7% of his field goals, which ranks 22nd in the NFL. By Football Outsiders’ advanced stats, he has been worth -3.4 points on field goals and extra points during his three-year career, which isn’t exactly the sort of performance you would want to lock up and give $9 million fully guaranteed.
Where Fairbairn has made an impact, though, is on kickoffs. The Texans have generated 12.7 points of field position on kickoffs over the past three years, the fourth-best mark in the league. Some of that comes down to coverage work, but Fairbairn was also excellent on kickoffs at the college level. Kickoff value means less than it used to in the NFL because it’s so easy to generate touchbacks, which makes Fairbairn less valuable, but the kickoff performance likely explains why the Texans are giving Fairbairn upper-echelon kicker money to stick around.
Monday, March 9
The deal: One year, $6 million
Unplayable for stretches last season, Norman struggled throughout his time in Washington and hasn’t been an above-average corner since his breakout season with the Panthers in 2015. His defensive coordinator there was current Bills coach Sean McDermott, and while Norman’s breakup with Carolina wasn’t pretty, the Bills are unsurprisingly betting that their culture and coaching will be able to unlock something closer to the Norman who was a first-team All-Pro that season.
Incentives can get this deal up to $8 million, but the guarantee number could move this grade around. Already at age 32, there’s a chance that Norman is toast and doesn’t make the Buffalo roster out of camp, which would be a lot easier to swallow on a $1 million guarantee than it would on something closer to the full $6 million. Assuming the true guarantee comes in somewhere between those two figures, Norman is a very reasonable flier for general manager Brandon Beane to take on a one-year deal. Norman will compete with Levi Wallace for the starting job on the outside across from superstar corner Tre’Davious White.
Friday, March 6
The deal: Four years, $24.5 million
The Chargers were a fundamentally better offense in 2019 with Ekeler on the field as opposed to Melvin Gordon, who now seems sure to leave Los Angeles in free agency. The Chargers were more efficient both running and receiving with Ekeler in the lineup. By expected points added on a per-play basis, they were something close to the Packers as the ninth-best offense in football with Ekeler on the field. With Gordon, they were closer to the Bills in 23rd.
Ekeler, who went undrafted in 2017, had been a super-efficient runner in 2017 and 2018, but he wasn’t particularly efficient in 2019. The Western State product made up for that by adding gobs of value in the receiving game, where he averaged 10.8 yards per reception and came within 7 yards of a 1,000-yard season. In terms of value added as a receiving back, Ekeler and Christian McCaffrey were in a pack of their own.
I’m still not sure whether Ekeler can handle 15 carries per game, but he can be valuable in his current role without getting that sort of rushing workload. I’m wary of just about any significant running back contract, but Ekeler is going to get about half of what Alvin Kamara gets from the Saints this summer, and he’s far closer to Kamara in terms of ability than the financial difference will indicate. Philip Rivers‘ instincts and propensity for sniffing out pressure pre-snap likely netted Ekeler a couple of his big plays last season, but he doesn’t need to hit 1,550 yards from scrimmage again to return value on this deal.
Wednesday, March 4
Chargers grade: B
Panthers grade: C-
This one’s curious from the Panthers’ perspective. Last year, Carolina traded away a third-round pick to move up in the second round to draft Greg Little, who seemed likely to take over as the team’s left tackle of the future. Injuries hit Little and most of the Panthers’ offense in 2019, but after just four games, it looks like those plans have changed. Okung was acquired to take over at left tackle, and with Taylor Moton entrenched at right tackle, Little could at least temporarily move inside or spend 2020 as the swing tackle when he badly needs NFL reps.
It would be one thing if the Panthers were expected to contend for a Super Bowl in 2020 or if Okung was going to lock down the position for years to come, but this team is in the middle of a rebuild under new coach Matt Rhule, and Okung has one year left on his deal. The widely respected former Seahawks tackle struggled through a wasted season in 2019, missing 10 games with a pulmonary embolism and a groin injury. A healthy Okung was a difference-maker for the Chargers in 2018, but the 31-year-old is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.
I could see it if the Panthers just had to give up a late-round pick for Okung, but trading away a legitimately good interior lineman in Turner makes this difficult to swallow, especially considering how Rhule wants to build a physical team in Carolina. Turner is 5 years younger than Okung, has made it to five straight Pro Bowls and has two years with about $20.4 million in non-guaranteed money left on his extension. He immediately steps in for the Chargers at right guard and gives them an excellent run-blocker as they move to more of a run-first approach with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback (for now).
What happens next for the Chargers will be interesting. Most 2020 mock drafts have them drafting a quarterback with the sixth overall pick, but if they go out and add a passer in free agency, they should be able to come away with either Tristan Wirfs or Mekhi Becton to fill in for Okung on the blind side. Right tackle is still a problem, but Los Angeles could suddenly have an imposing line to protect Taylor — or whoever else ends up under center — in 2020.
Tuesday, March 3
Broncos grade: C+
Jaguars grade: C+
A little over two years ago, the Jacksonville defense carried Blake Bortles & Co. all the way to a fourth-quarter lead against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game before a conservative offense and a terrible call against Myles Jack left the Jags just short of the Super Bowl. With Bouye leaving for Denver, seven of the 11 defensive starters and all five of the primary defensive backs on what was the league’s best defense have left town. If pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who is likely to receive a franchise tag, gets his wish, that number will soon be eight.
Bouye’s play has slipped since that impressive 2017 season, but this is a salary dump for a Jags team that desperately needed cap space. He was sacrificed because virtually every move Jacksonville made after its AFC championship run turned out to be a disaster. Free-agent additions Nick Foles and Andrew Norwell got hurt and didn’t live up to expectations. The team foolishly let Allen Robinson go and chose to pay Marqise Lee, Allen Hurns and Donte Moncrief instead. A decision to re-sign Bortles quickly proved to be a mistake. The team’s toxic culture under Tom Coughlin ran off several key players. A Super Bowl appearance might have smoothed over some of the flaws, but it’s depressing to think about how exciting the Jags looked so recently and how far they feel from that team now.
Corner isn’t really a position of strength for the Jags anymore, and they probably would have kept Bouye if they were in better cap shape, but getting a meaningful pick for a player they would have likely cut is a small victory. At the same time, the Broncos are sending the fourth-round pick they got from the 49ers to acquire Bouye, which means Jacksonville will be getting one of the last picks in the round.
Bouye is nominally coming over to replace Chris Harris Jr., and when Bouye has been good, he has been a reasonable facsimile of the longtime Broncos standout. The difference between the two has been consistency. Harris has consistently been a good-to-great cornerback; Bouye hasn’t. After some early success, the Texans buried the undrafted free agent on their depth chart and only begrudgingly pushed him into the starting lineup once first-rounder Kevin Johnson got hurt in 2016. Bouye was a revelation in the slot and played every bit as well as Jalen Ramsey did in 2017, but he took a step backward in 2018 and a larger step in that direction last season. According to NFL Next Gen Stats data, Bouye allowed a passer rating of 104.4 as the closest defender in coverage in 2019 with opposing quarterbacks completing 67.4% of their passes against him.
Denver coach Vic Fangio has been able to turn around veteran cornerbacks in the past, with guys like Carlos Rogers and Kyle Fuller reaching new heights. The Broncos have Bouye on what amounts to a two-year, $27 million deal with no remaining guaranteed money. That’s a lot in a cornerback market where the top salary is currently somewhere around $14 million, but it might not seem quite as significant once guys like Darius Slay get paid this offseason.
Monday, Feb. 17
The deal: Three years, $43.8 million
Humphries parlayed his first healthy, productive season with the Cardinals into a player-friendly extension. The former first-round pick missed 37 games over his first four years, but he started all 16 games on the left side last season and allowed just two sacks by Stats LLC’s measures. Humphries did commit 13 penalties, but the Cardinals were clearly impressed. This three-year deal includes $29 million in guaranteed money over the first two seasons and would allow him to hit the free-agent market again before turning 30, both of which are pluses given his relatively limited history of success.
From the Cardinals’ perspective, you can understand why they would prefer to take the plunge with a lineman they know. The free-agent market at left tackle is limited to veterans such as Jason Peters and Greg Robinson, each of whom have their own flaws. Arizona could be in line to draft a tackle with the No. 8 overall pick in April’s draft, but by signing Humphries, it is free to use that pick on defensive help or to add another weapon at receiver.
The Cardinals should have been able to get a fourth non-guaranteed year on this deal, and I have reservations that Humphries will stay healthy in 2020 and 2021, but unless they thought a franchise left tackle was going to fall to them at No. 8, signing him was likely the best of a few bad options.
Monday, Feb. 10
The deal: Three years, $16 million
While it was lost in the shuffle amid the breakout season of Lamar Jackson and the return to form of Marcus Peters, Clark’s ascension into the starting lineup for an injured Tony Jefferson was a stabilizing factor for a struggling Ravens defense. An undersized but willing box safety, Clark took over the green-dot helmet from Jefferson and Patrick Onwuasor and served as a key defensive communicator on the field for coordinator Don Martindale. Clark was also a frequent blitzer for the Ravens, although he finished the year with only one sack and three quarterback knockdowns. In another era, Clark would have realistically been classified as a linebacker by his heat map:
Chuck Clark heat map pic.twitter.com/YnrGHjdtr4
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) March 9, 2020
After cutting Jefferson, signing Clark and finishing up Jimmy Smith‘s deal, the Ravens have locked in their starting five defensive backs for 2020 with Clark and Earl Thomas at safety and Peters, Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young at corner. This is a modest deal for a starting safety, but it’s telling that the Ravens were aggressive in locking up Clark in February as opposed to letting the Virginia Tech product play out the final year of his rookie deal. Clark probably won’t push for Pro Bowl consideration, but he should settle in as a solid starter again in 2020.
Wednesday, Jan. 15
The deal: One year, $11 million
This is tough to grade because the Cardinals are simply going to keep paying the greatest player in franchise history for as long as he’s willing to play. Fitzgerald is worth more to Arizona than he’s worth to any other team, but this is a significant one-year outlay for a team that could desperately use $11 million to spend on filling out the rest of its roster. Nearly 89% of Fitz’s receiving yards came out of the slot last season, and while he’s a security blanket for Kyler Murray, I would much prefer to see Christian Kirk or someone more explosive there in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense.
After attracting heavy usage from 2015-17, the future Hall of Famer basically reproduced his 2018 numbers in 2019. Disconcertingly, he produced 100-yard games in Week 1 and Week 2 before averaging just under 42 receiving yards per game over the remainder of the season. Fitzgerald is easy to root for and should remain an institution in Arizona, but as a receiver who profiles to rack up somewhere around 10 yards per catch and 45 yards per game, this deal doesn’t push the Cardinals toward contention.