Home Football Bill Barnwell grades the big 2017 free-agent deals

Bill Barnwell grades the big 2017 free-agent deals


Money is flying all over the place in free agency. Who deserves high marks, and who will come to regret their decisions? Let’s break down each big deal.

Editor’s note: This article will be updated as long as noteworthy deals keep rolling in. The most recent write-ups are at the top.

Jump to: TE Bennett (GB) | CB Bouye (JAC) | DL Campbell (JAC) | WR Cooks (NE) | CB Gilmore (NE) | QB Glennon (CHI) | LB Hightower (NE) | WR Jackson (TB) | WR Jeffery (PHI) | OLB Jones (ARI) | RB Lacy (SEA) | WR Marshall (NYG) | DT Poe (ATL) | WR Pryor (WAS) | QB Taylor (BUF) | G Zeitler (CLE)

Notable deals | Top 150 free agents | Schefter’s updates

Friday, March 17

Grade: C

The Giants used the franchise tag to keep Pierre-Paul off the market, but they didn’t use its leverage to get much of a discount on a long-term deal. JPP finally got his mega-deal with the Giants, who paid full freight: The 28-year-old Pierre-Paul agreed to a four-year, $62 million contract with $40 million guaranteed.

The $15.5 million per year average seems excessive given Pierre-Paul’s level of production. Even in what felt like a resurgent year, Pierre-Paul had a modest seven sacks in 12 games. He has improved as a run defender — the days when he would look flummoxed when teams read him on option plays are mostly gone — but we are talking about a player who has just 29 combined sacks over his past five seasons.

Injuries have impacted those totals, which is the other argument against locking JPP up for the long term. Nobody could have foreseen that Pierre-Paul would suffer serious hand injuries in a fireworks accident, but JPP also missed the final four games of 2015 with a hernia and underwent back surgery in 2013.

In a way, the Giants are still paying for 2012, when JPP produced 16.5 sacks as a sophomore and looked like the new Michael Strahan. He has shown flashes of that player since, but he has yet to put together a full season in that vein. At $15.5 million per year, the Giants are paying for the JPP of their memories, not the one they are likely to get over the next several seasons.

Thursday, March 16

Grade: C+

If the reports are true, Cook was the Jody Reed of this year’s market, turning down an offer to stay in Green Bay in excess of the three-year, $21 million deal the Packers eventually gave Martellus Bennett. Instead, Cook has moved out West via a two-year, $12.2 million deal to stretch the field for the Raiders, with $5 million fully guaranteed in the first year.

In doing so, Cook leaves Green Bay, where the Packers had carved out a useful role for the oft-frustrating tight end. It might be tougher to pull that off in Oakland, given Cook’s ineffectiveness as a blocker. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Raiders shift their personnel any as part of this move; they might have been disappointed with Clive Walford last season, but useful blocking tight end Lee Smith will return from a broken leg, and the Raiders fell in love with jack-of-all-trades Jamize Olawale. They went with only two tight ends on 253 snaps last season, so Cook’s role may be limited to passing downs. Even so, we’re talking about a player who has dropped 4.9 percent of his passes over the last five years, which is 16th in the league among guys with 300 or more targets over that time frame. Cook can be useful for stretches at a time, but a breakout at age 30 seems unlikely.

Revised grade: F

Let’s review: The Dolphins have one of the league’s most expensive defensive lines, anchored by two elite players: Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake. The team wanted a third pass-rusher last offseason and paid a premium for Mario Williams while quietly adding Branch, a former Jaguars bust, on a one-year, $2.5 million deal to serve as a backup. Williams busted in spectacular (if predictable) fashion, while Branch was a useful reserve, racking up 5.5 sacks and 12 hits on 430 pass-rush attempts.

You’d think the Dolphins would figure that most players will look effective playing next to two Hall of Fame-caliber defenders, and would therefore allow Branch to leave while signing the next buy-low opportunity to play alongside Suh and Wake. Instead, the Dolphins paid a hefty premium to keep Branch around, giving him $27 million over three years. Much depends on the structure of this deal, but in a draft exceedingly deep in pass-rushers, the Dolphins likely overpaid to hold on to a player they could have replaced at a fraction of the cost.

Updated Thursday, March 16: It turns out the structure of this deal is brutal. The Dolphins would have been foolish to give Branch $8 million per year while guaranteeing the first year of the contract, but it would have been only moderately risky. Instead, the Dolphins gave Branch a staggering $16.8 million in full guarantees, meaning that 70 percent of his total contract is guaranteed. The only other veteran end in football on a multiyear, nonrookie contract with a higher percentage of his money guaranteed is, not coincidentally, Cameron Wake. After Branch, the next-best guarantee for a defensive end is Brandon Graham, and his contract is 50 percent guaranteed.

Even worse, the Dolphins structured the deal in a way that reduces their cap hit in Year 1, holding Branch to a cap hit of $5 million. To make up for that, they guaranteed Branch a $10 million base salary for 2017, which is incredible for a player whose breakout season was 5.5 sacks and 12 knockdowns. The Dolphins would have been just fine if they had let Branch leave, made the totally reasonable trade they completed for William Hayes, and gone after another rotation piece such as Alex Okafor. Instead, they’re committed to a guy who was considered replacement-level before last season and might be considered replacement-level after this upcoming season.

Grade: B

Even though Barwin struggled in the move to a wide-nine scheme under Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz last season, there’s probably still a productive pass-rusher lurking in there. Over the last two years, Barwin has taken down opposing quarterbacks once every 46.1 pass-rush attempts. That’s 15th in the league among guys with 800 attempts or more over that time frame (25 per game), nestling Barwin right between Ziggy Ansah and Robert Quinn, his new teammate in Los Angeles.

The Rams aren’t taking much risk, either. Barwin’s one-year deal maxes out at $6.5 million, which is about what guys like Brian Robison and William Gholston are making in 2017. Barwin, 30, is capable enough to add value as a coverage guy, too, and he’ll drop back more frequently as a 3-4 outside linebacker under Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. It’s a little odd to see Los Angeles targeting players such as Barwin and Andrew Whitworth as part of their rebuild, but getting useful talent without needing to make a long-term commitment beats the alternative.

Grade: B

After leaving Kansas City, Poe’s market never materialized. In part, that’s because he hasn’t offered much as a pass-rusher; his six-sack season in 2014 included just eight quarterback knockdowns, implying that his sack totals were inflated. Indeed, after undergoing back surgery before the 2015 season and seeing his previously-ridiculous snap count percentage drop out of the 90s, Poe has just 2.5 sacks and 12 knockdowns combined over the past two seasons.

As a result, Poe wasn’t going to get the Fletcher Cox-sized deal, but as a 26-year-old nose tackle with two Pro Bowls under his belt, he might have come into free agency expecting to contract similar to what Damon Harrison got in 2016. Instead, teams seemed to express concerns about his surgically-repaired back in a defensive tackle market that never developed. Brandon Williams re-signed with the Ravens on a Harrison-sized deal, but Bennie Logan replaced Cox with the Chiefs on a one-year deal, while Johnathan Hankins remains unsigned.

As a result, the Memphis product had to settle for a one-year, $8-million deal with the Falcons. The deal makes sense as a replacement for 35-year-old Jonathan Babineaux, who remains an unrestricted free agent and may retire. The Falcons had the league’s fourth-worst rush-defense DVOA last season, and while Atlanta has made a conscious choice to sacrifice strength for speed, the 346-pound Poe gives Dan Quinn a mauling nose tackle on the interior of his defense. Given that Scott Pioli was the Chiefs general manager when Kansas City selected Poe in the first round of the 2012 draft, it’s not an enormous surprise to see Poe head to Georgia.

Grade: C

Murray leaves what may have been the league’s best line last season for what was likely its worst. The Vikings will have a new look at tackle with Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff added this offseason, but the former Raiders back will have to make his own way far more frequently in 2017. Murray averaged 1.75 yards after contact last season, which was 19th in the league. He finished 23rd in individual DVOA and averaged just 4.0 yards per carry on 195 attempts while Oakland’s other running backs, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, averaged 5.6 yards per rush on their 170 combined rushes.

There’s a chance Murray is essentially a replacement-level back, which would be disastrous given that the Vikings are giving him $15 million over three years with $8.6 million guaranteed. Anything seems like a discount when you consider that the Vikings were due to pay Adrian Peterson $18 million before releasing the future Hall of Famer, but it’s fair to wonder whether Minnesota would have been better off teaming a low-cost power back like LeGarrette Blount or Tim Hightower with Jerick McKinnon.

Wednesday, March 15

Grade: C+

There didn’t appear to be many receptions available to be grabbed by Thielen before the 2016 season, given that the third-year wideout had as many as five wide receivers ahead of him on the Minnesota depth chart. Thielen’s profile grew as the season went on, though, and during the final quarter of the season, he produced a 100-yard game against the Jaguars and a 200-yard, two-touchdown game against the Packers.

Thielen finished the season catching 74.2 percent of his passes, which is a staggering rate for a player whose average target traveled 10.7 yards in the air. For reference, the other guys whose average passes traveled between 10 and 11 yards in the air caught an average of 62.7 percent of their passes. Here are the best catch rates among players with 80 or more targets in 2016. Note how deep Thielen’s passes were, as opposed to the rest of the bunch:

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