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)
Friday, March 17
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
Thielen was a restricted free agent tendered at the second-round level for what would be his final year under team control, but the Vikings decided to keep the local product around with a three-year, $17 million deal, guaranteeing Thielen $11 million in the process. It’s a little bit of a surprise, given that Stefon Diggs is unquestionably the team’s No. 1 wideout when healthy, and the Vikings are presumably going to want a longer look at Laquon Treadwell, whom they took in the first round of the 2016 draft and threw three passes to as a rookie. General manager Rick Spielman might have considered waiting to see if Thielen held on to his sudden improvements in 2017 before signing the wideout to an extension, but he got enough of a discount here to make it worth Minnesota’s while.
The league seemed suspicious Hightower had any intentions of leaving the Patriots, and indeed, Hightower visited the Jets, Titans, and Steelers before making his way back to New England. The two-time Super Bowl winner will stick around for four years at the cool cost of $43.5 million, $19 million of which is guaranteed.
The obvious comparison for this deal is to the one Jamie Collins signed with the Browns after the Patriots dealt Hightower’s former teammate to Cleveland. Collins’ deal is unquestionably larger: He took four years and $50 million to stay in Ohio, with $26.4 million in guarantees. His contract makes Hightower’s look like a bargain, but it’s also fair to keep in mind that no two contracts are identical. Players often take less to come play for the Patriots, and a team like the Browns is always going to overpay to acquire talent given how bad they are at the moment.
The Collins deal looks a little worse than it previously did by comparison, but the Patriots aren’t getting an enormous discount. Hightower’s getting top-level inside linebacker money, as the only inside ‘backers in the league with a higher annual salary are Collins and Luke Kuechly. It’s deserved, given how impactful Hightower has been (particularly with huge plays in each of New England’s Super Bowl victories), but there’s nothing extraordinary about a very good player getting paid like he’s very good.
The Raiders have been surprisingly quiet in free agency this offseason, but they dipped their toes in the water to bring speed to town. Patterson has been a lightning return man and an on-again, off-again part of the Minnesota offense. The Raiders will find him a role after giving the former first-round pick a two-year, $8 million deal with $5 million guaranteed. The 2018 season in Patterson’s deal voids if he catches 65 passes or takes 65 percent of the offensive snaps, neither of which is likely to happen.
Patterson’s first job is as a world-class kick returner, and there’s a strong case suggesting he’s the best returner in football. Patterson’s been the primary kick returner on a unit which has generated 53.6 points of field position over the last four years, the best figure in the league by a significant margin, as Kansas City’s second-best at 37.4 points of field position. Patterson himself has averaged 30.4 yards per return while scoring five touchdowns. Nobody else has returned more than two kicks for scores over the last four years.
Most returners seem to have their success with one team, but guys like Leon Washington and Justin Miller have been threats to take kickoffs to the house in multiple places. As teams likely try to place their kickoffs at or near the goal line now that the touchback line is the 25, kick returners are more valuable than they seemed two years ago. Patterson probably won’t be much more than a fourth option and deep threat as a wideout, but as a replacement for Andre Holmes, the Tennessee product seems like a logical short-term investment for the Raiders.
With Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles still available in free agency, it has to be a little bit of a surprise to see the Patriots target a player who was Cincinnati’s third-string back. Burkhead had just 13 career carries before filling in for the injured Gio Bernard over the final few weeks of 2016. The Nebraska product carved out a growing role for himself as the season went on, culminating in a heavy workload in a meaningless-but-impressive game against an excellent Ravens run defense in Week 17. Burkhead carried the ball 27 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns, and in doing so, may have attracted the attention of his new suitors.
The Patriots have a hole at running back with LeGarrette Blount a free agent, and while it seems unlikely Burkhead would fill that role as a 250-carry primary back, the Patriots have showed no qualms in the past about taking backups off other teams and giving them meaningful roles in their offense. (Think Dion Lewis or, before him, Wes Welker.) Burkhead was hyper-efficient, posting the league’s second-best DVOA among backs with 10 carries or more last season, and he’s been effective as a receiver, catching 76 percent of the passes thrown his way while averaging 8.5 yards per reception.
It’s impossible to project how Burkhead will do in New England given the small sample size. Welker comes to mind as a best-case comparison. Like Burkhead, he’s a player who looked effective while serving mostly as a backup behind less talented brethren. (Welker spent most of his time in Miami behind the wildly inefficient Chris Chambers and a post-prime Marty Booker.) Welker was far more involved with the offense, as he at least had one 100-target season underneath his belt. The Patriots had to give up a second-round pick to trade for Welker as a restricted free agent, which they won’t have to do with Burkhead, but the other issue is Burkhead’s contract. Welker signed a five-year, $18.1 million deal when joining the Pats. Burkhead’s one-year, $3.2 million deal isn’t breaking the bank, but it allows him to leave in unrestricted free agency next season, even (and perhaps especially) if he has a breakout season in New England.
Tuesday, March 14
After being linked to seemingly every veteran running back on the market, the Seahawks finally made their pick and brought in a back to compete with Thomas Rawls. It’s hard to say they got a bargain price. Seattle is guaranteeing Lacy $3 million on a one-year, $5.5-million deal, suggesting (unless the $2.5 million is purely incentives) it’s likely he’ll receive the $5.5 million for 2017. Given the total lack of movement in the free-agent market for backs and the presence of what is widely suggested to be a deep draft class at the position, it’s hard to believe the Seahawks had to pay this much to bring Lacy in. As is the case with Luke Joeckel, the Seahawks weren’t able to extract multiple years of team control as part of the deal. If Pete Carroll can revitalize Lacy’s career, Lacy will be able to leave in unrestricted free agency next offseason.
It’s been two years since Lacy was an effective regular running back; he was mediocre in 2015, averaging 4.1 yards per carry and finishing 35th in individual DVOA. He spent last offseason on a P90X-driven mission to get in shape and looked better in 2016, averaging 5.1 yards per carry, but went down after five games with a season-ending ankle injury. Reports out of Green Bay suggested Lacy lost weight in the spring but then put the weight he’d lost back on as the season started; it’s fair to wonder some of that $2.5 million in non-guaranteed money might be incentives surrounding Lacy’s weight. Ideally, Lacy will stay healthy and explosive while splitting carries with Rawls, whose own injury history during his short time in the NFL suggests the Central Michigan product might need a reduced role himself to stay on the field.
The Chiefs appear to have made a wise choice in passing on a big deal for incumbent nose tackle Dontari Poe, who has struggled to find a contract in the market and appears to be on a tour of the other 31 NFL teams in an attempt to find one. Poe hasn’t really been a consistently impactful interior pass-rusher, which has hurt his value, but he’s also not getting the sort of offers run-stuffers like Damon Harrison and Brandon Williams received in free agency, suggesting teams may also be concerned about his surgically-repaired back.
It was plausible to think the Chiefs might have eventually brought Poe back on a one-year deal before allowing him to hit the market again next offseason, but instead, they’ve opted to move on and sign Logan away from the Eagles. Logan spent last season helping against the run and freeing up space for Fletcher Cox and Jordan Hicks, but he worked as a nose tackle when Philadelphia played a 3-4 before Jim Schwartz arrived. In Kansas City, he’ll move back to play the nose alongside Jaye Howard and promising second-year end Chris Jones. The Chiefs are giving him $8 million on a one-year deal, which is reasonable for a short-term contract, but it would have been nice to get a year of unguaranteed money on the books for Logan in 2018.
Sunday, March 12
Is Wheaton the next Emmanuel Sanders, or is his inability to break from the pack in Pittsburgh a sign of his fungibility? A perennial breakout candidate in the Steel City, Wheaton gave way to Martavis Bryant at times between 2014 and 2015 and then went through a wasted year in 2016 with a shoulder injury. Owing in part to the presence of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh, of course, Wheaton wasn’t able to command the ball during his time in Pittsburgh. He caught the ball on just 10.4 percent of his routes between 2014 and 2015, which was good for only 124th in the league in that time. The Bears did well to get a non-guaranteed second year, which will allow them to benefit if Wheaton breaks out, but the $6 million Wheaton will make this season is a lot for a player who has yet to shine as a pro.
As the Patriots wait for Dont’a Hightower to return with tales of the offers he has received on his travels, they added to their front seven by signing Guy away from the Ravens. The 26-year-old Guy quietly offered some utility as an interior pass-rusher the past couple of seasons, knocking down quarterbacks 19 times despite playing on just 45.9 percent of Baltimore’s defensive snaps. He’ll slot in as part of New England’s rotation at defensive tackle alongside the re-signed Alan Branch.
There are shades of Jared Cook in Wright, who flashed stretches as an excellent receiver in Tennessee before struggling with injuries and falling out of favor with coaching staffs who didn’t play to his strengths. We’re not that far removed from 2013, when Wright caught 94 passes in his sophomore season, the eighth-highest total in league history for a player in his second year. The group of players surrounding Wright on that list includes all kinds of superstars and useful players at wideout.
It still seems like Wright could excel in the right scheme as a weapon out of the slot, but the Bears might not have the offensive capabilities to get the most out of the former Baylor star. Mike Glennon‘s struggles throwing shorter passes could loom as an issue here, but Wright should get a shot in place of Eddie Royal in the Chicago offense on his one-year, $4 million deal.
The Lions won a bidding war with the Seahawks and Packers for the 29-year-old Lang, whose departure suddenly leaves the Packers perilously thin up front. The interior of the Green Bay line has disappeared over the past year, with Josh Sitton released before the 2016 season while both Lang and center JC Tretter left in free agency. The value of signing away free agents from teams within your division can be overstated, but the Lions certainly aren’t complaining about taking a Pro Bowler away from their rivals in Wisconsin.
Lang’s arrival basically means that the Lions swapped out the right side of their line, trading Larry Warford and Riley Reiff for Lang and Rick Wagner. Lang’s deal — reportedly three years for $28.5 million with $19 million guaranteed — is in line with the averages for players like Warford and Ronald Leary, but the Lions had to pay extra in terms of guarantees to win over Lang. He got more in guarantees than Warford ($17 million) and nearly as much as Leary ($20 million) despite the fact that they each picked up four-year deals. No other guard in football with a multiyear, non-rookie contract has more than 52 percent of their contact guaranteed. Lang is at 66.7 percent, making it likely he’ll see all three years of this deal.
For all the jokes, Woodhead really is a useful player when healthy. During his time in San Diego, Woodhead averaged 5.63 yards per touch, which was the eighth-best rate in football over that time frame. For comparison’s sake, Ezekiel Elliott averaged 5.63 yards per touch during his fabulous rookie season in Dallas last season. Most of those touches are coming as a receiver as opposed to a running back, but Woodhead’s not just catching passes on third-and-long for meaningless yardage. He was second in receiving DVOA among backs in 2013 and then ninth in 2015, representing his two healthy seasons in California.
Woodhead will take over that role as the checkdown back in Baltimore on passing downs from Kyle Juszczyk, who was far less effective as a receiver. Woodhead’s a game pass blocker but occasionally gets overrun by bigger defenders. His biggest concern, of course, is injuries; the 32-year-old Woodhead fractured his fibula in 2014 and tore his ACL last season. The Ravens unsurprisingly have the right idea with his deal, though, as Woodhead’s picking up an eminently reasonable $3.3 million this year and has two non-guaranteed years at $3.3 million and $3.8 million afterward. Woodhead won’t be a straight-up replacement for Kenneth Dixon, who will miss the first four games of the year after being suspended for violating the league’s PED policy, but he has a way of carving a role out in offenses. It would be a surprise if he didn’t do the same in Baltimore.
If Joeckel had been drafted by the Jaguars in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, chances are that he would be hoping to catch on with a team for the league minimum after his rookie contract expired. Instead, because of his cachet as a player who was once drafted with the second overall pick in what looks in hindsight to be a brutally bad draft, Joeckel was able to extract $7 million in guarantees as part of a one-year, $8 million deal with the Seahawks.
Seattle is desperate for offensive line help, but Joeckel is a reclamation project at best. He was arguably the worst left tackle in football during his two years on the left side in Jacksonville, which led the Jags to give up on Joeckel by signing Kelvin Beachum and declining the former second overall pick’s fifth-year option. Joeckel bounced inside to left guard last year for three games (with a fourth back at left tackle) and wasn’t much better there before suffering a serious knee injury, tearing his ACL, MCL, and meniscus. Joeckel’s also missed time with a broken ankle and a concussion, having missed 25 of 64 games during his four years in the league.
Taking a flier on Joeckel would be one thing, but the Seahawks are paying Joeckel like he’s a solid guard, with his $8 million cap hit more than the rest of the Seattle offensive line combined ($7.5 million). The Seahawks clearly hope that offensive line coach Tom Cable will be able to turn around Joeckel, but even if he does, the Seahawks didn’t manage to get any future non-guaranteed years tacked onto the deal to reap future benefits if Joeckel succeeds. It’s hard to see a future where the Seahawks look back in a year and don’t feel like this was a waste of money and time.
Saturday, March 11
The Jets had a major question mark at first-team left tackle after cutting Ryan Clady, so they were badly in need of a warm body to occupy the position and protect … the guy who will replace the question mark at first-team quarterback. From that perspective, Beachum is a massive upgrade from the replacement-level tackles the Jets had in place.
This would have been a better deal if the Jets could have gotten Beachum for only one guaranteed year, since the former Steelers standout had an uneven year in Jacksonville while recovering from a torn ACL. The Jets were forced to essentially guarantee Beachum 1.5 years by guaranteeing $4 million of his $8 million base salary for the 2018 season. They can get out of the other $4 million if Beachum absolutely falls flat on his face, but they’re likely locked in for two years and $16 million as part of Beachum’s three-year, $24 million pact.
Kickers are better than ever before, which makes it easier to find a decent one. The Bills had brutal kicking last year, though, with Dan Carpenter struggling mightily — 19-of-25 on field goals and five missed extra points on 45 attempts. After adjusting for the distance of his kicks, Carpenter cost the Bills 7.9 points of field position, per Football Outsiders, which was the fifth-worst rate in football.
Throw in the league’s third-worst touchback percentage on kickoffs, and it’s no surprise the Bills wanted to upgrade at kicker this offseason. It’s bizarre, though, to commit a remarkable sum (for a kicker) to Hauschka, who Seattle coach Pete Carroll unceremoniously dumped in public earlier this year. Hauschka wasn’t much better than Carpenter on kicking plays last year, costing the Seahawks four points of field position, mostly on extra points; the NC State product actually missed six of his 35 extra-point tries and failed on two kicks inside 30 yards.
Hauschka was much better on kickoffs and has been solid in years past, so it’s not unreasonable for the Bills to bring him on board. It’s the money that seems weird. After giving Carpenter a four-year, $10 million deal and being disappointed by the outcome, why are the Bills giving Hauschka four years and $12.4 million? Greg Zuerlein and Nick Folk are both still free agents. Chandler Catanzaro signed for undisclosed terms with the Jets, which usually means a small deal. The Bills are paying a premium at a position where doing so isn’t necessary and doesn’t guarantee success.
The Saints are taking more of a risk on Fairley than most teams are with their free-agent signings. You can understand why the Saints are desperate to try to find useful defenders, and outside of Cameron Jordan, Fairley was their best pass-rusher last year. The four-year, $28 million deal Fairley signed seems to drill down to something more like two years and $14 million in guarantees, which is reasonable. A $7 million average is totally understandable for a guy who delivered 6.5 sacks and 22 quarterback knockdowns last season.
The problem, of course, is that Fairley isn’t always that player. It appeared he was on the verge of finally breaking out with a six-sack, 19-knockdown season with the Lions in 2013, but Fairley had just one sack and five hits in eight games in 2014, and then registered only a half-sack with seven hits as a backup with the Rams in 2015. Last year was Fairley’s first 16-game season as a pro, and while nobody doubts his athleticism and upside, this seems like a classic case of paying for the outlier.
Well, the Vikings were dead set on heading into 2017 with better offensive tackle play. You can understand why, but in addition to paying a premium for a middling pass-blocker in Mike Remmers, they’ve paid a huge premium for Reiff. The Lions always seemed unsure about leaving Reiff on the left side, and indeed, they eventually used a first-round pick on Taylor Decker and moved Reiff to right tackle for his final year in Detroit.
Vikings GM Rick Spielman is paying Reiff as if he’s a surefire left tackle; the Iowa product’s new deal is for five years and $58.8 million, with $26.3 million guaranteed, the biggest deal in terms of total value any tackle received in free agency this year. The Vikings will likely be able to get out of this deal after two years if Reiff fails to live up to expectations, but it’s tough to see Reiff delivering outsize value on this contract.
Bennett’s market never materialized the way he had hoped. While he reportedly was seeking $9 million per year in this new deal, the Packers were able to bring the Super Bowl winner on board for three years and $20.5 million (nearly $7 million per season). Bennett will have a smaller average salary than tight ends such as Jack Doyle and Kyle Rudolph, making this a very reasonable contract for a Packers team typically loath to spend in free agency.
Why didn’t Bennett get top-tier tight end money? While he was a team player en route to his first Super Bowl victory with the Patriots, he didn’t really have the breakout season most would have expected if they had known Rob Gronkowski would miss half the season with injuries. Bennett also struggled with a debilitating ankle injury that sapped his athleticism. He should be healthier in 2017, and he should offer the Packers steady blocking help and a red zone weapon for mismatches in man coverage. Bennett will take over for Jared Cook, who reportedly declined an even larger contract from the Packers. Cook might not find his market very appealing.
Friday, March 10
Trade: WR Brandin Cooks, Patriots (from Saints)
Grade for Patriots: B | Grade for Saints: B+
The Patriots look like a team with every intention of maximizing their talent with Tom Brady in the lineup, while simultaneously trying to acquire a young core for the future. They added to the stunning signing of Stephon Gilmore on Thursday by trading with the Saints for Brandin Cooks on Friday evening, a move that gives Brady yet another weapon.
New England will send the final pick of the first round and its third-rounder (pick No. 103) to New Orleans for Cooks and its fourth-rounder (pick No. 118). Per Chase Stuart’s draft chart, the Patriots sent draft capital roughly commensurate to the 29th pick to New Orleans to acquire Cooks, a former first-round pick himself.
That’s a little surprising, less because of Cooks’ talent and more because the star wideout is going to seek a massive deal at wide receiver very shortly. Cooks is entering the fourth year of his rookie deal with a $1.5 million cap hit; the Patriots will presumably pick up his fifth-year option for about $8 million, giving them a two-year, $9.5 million contract on the Oregon State product. It is a surprise that the Patriots didn’t simply keep their picks and use them to try to draft a wideout, and this trade probably tells us what they think about this wide receiver class.
Cooks will likely take a roster spot from Danny Amendola; the Patriots can create $6.5 million in cap space by releasing the veteran. Cooks’ role in the lineup will be more significant than what we saw from Amendola. With Julian Edelman and the combination of Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell already taking regular reps at wide receiver, it seems likely the Pats will resort to an 11 personnel offensive package (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR).
Having acquired Dwayne Allen seemingly to serve as a regular at tight end earlier this week, it’s entirely likely the Cooks move could foretell a reduced role for Rob Gronkowski, likely in the hopes of keeping Gronk healthier for the postseason.
For the Saints, this is a very reasonable return for a player who seemed to grow frustrated with his role in New Orleans and might not have been in their future plans. Cooks publicly complained about his lack of targets at times in 2016, which could create an interesting dynamic in New England, where subjugating your own interests and statistics for the team is fetishized more than anywhere else in football.
Previous iterations of this deal suggested the Saints would look to acquire Malcolm Butler, but they might prefer the picks in a defense-heavy draft. They aren’t in the same sort of desperate cap situation they were in before Drew Brees‘ extension, but coach Sean Payton will be able to address the pass-rushing spot across from Cameron Jordan or target help for his much-maligned secondary with these extra selections. Trading disgruntled wide receivers to New England can be a dangerous game, as the Raiders can remind you with regards to Randy Moss, but this seems like a wholly reasonable asset swap, given what the Saints had and what they needed to acquire.
The Patriots got solid production out of their two years with Sheard, although the defensive lineman ceded snaps to Trey Flowers as the 2016 season went along. On 636 pass rushes over the past two seasons, Sheard generated 13 sacks and 22 quarterback knockdowns. Over that same time frame, Packers LB Nick Perry had 14.5 sacks and 20 knockdowns on 543 pass rushes for the Packers. Perry has been more productive, but he is earning $60 million over five years. Sheard is getting less than half that — $25.5 million and $12.8 million in guarantees — on his new three-year deal with the Colts. I’d prefer to take a shot on Sheard breaking out given more playing time than to pay Perry as a premium pass-rusher.
The Panthers gave a staggering contract to former Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil, so Minnesota apparently decided to respond in kind by signing a middling tackle away from Carolina. Remmers was badly overmatched in pass protection at times during his stint protecting Cam Newton, but he’s a solid run-blocker and should help clear paths for whomever replaces Adrian Peterson in the Minnesota backfield. Since the Vikings have the immobile Sam Bradford at quarterback, though, I’d want a better pass protector for five years and $30 million. Remmers will team with Riley Reiff (who got a five-year deal worth up to $58.75 million) to try to keep Bradford afloat in 2017.
Cleveland’s decision to avoid slapping the franchise tag on Pryor appears to be a wise one, but Browns fans who had just fallen in love with their latest offensive weapon will be disappointed to see Pryor leave after one year of excellent play at wideout in Ohio. The Browns will replace Pryor with Kenny Britt, while Pryor will join Washington and work with injured 2016 first-rounder Josh Doctson to replace the departed DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon.
The market for Pryor never materialized, as teams seemed hesitant to commit significant resources over multiple years to a player with just one year of meaningful professional experience at a position. (If Pryor had only been a quarterback!) Instead, despite the vacuum of chaos enveloping the Washington front office in the absence of deposed general manager Scot McCloughan, the Redskins actually pieced together a reasonably solid deal for a starting wideout, getting Pryor on a one-year contract worth up to $8 million.
The best free-agent moves involve teams getting useful players on short-term deals for less than market value. That’s what the Bears have done in acquiring Amukamara, who appeared to rebuild his value and justify a long-term deal during a solid year with the Jaguars. Instead, when Amukamara’s market failed to materialize, the Bears were able to fill a major hole at cornerback temporarily and bring in the former Giants draftee on a one-year deal at $7 million, well below the $10+ million rate guys like Dre Kirkpatrick were receiving on long-term contracts. Amukamara’s injury history might have given some teams pause, but the Bears aren’t making a multi-year commitment, and Amukamara will be a huge upgrade on Tracy Porter or Kyle Fuller at cornerback.
It was unlikely that Timmons would return to the Steelers because of the hometown premium, the weird economic problem where players are more likely to take pay cuts from other organizations than they are from their own. Timmons made $8.8 million as part of his staggering $15.1 million cap hit with the Steelers in the final year of his oft-restructured deal, and it was tough to imagine Pittsburgh matching that annual salary while managing raises for Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
So, Timmons instead finds his way to Miami, which has struck out repeatedly in trying to sign linebackers in free agency and just gave Kiko Alonso a first-round tender out of the fear that somebody would grab him for a second-round pick with a large contract. (A second-round pick for Alonso, if I’m not being clear, would be an excellent deal for the pick-strapped Dolphins.) With Alonso likely moving to the weakside, Timmons will move to a 4-3 for the first time in his professional career and play middle linebacker behind Ndamukong Suh.
It’s hardly out of the question Timmons will be worth his deal, especially in the first year. I’d be worried about committing to a second season, as the Dolphins have done by guaranteeing $11 million of Timmons’ $12 million total, for an inside linebacker who will be in his age-32 season in 2018. Timmons will be a much-needed upgrade on Jelani Jenkins in Miami’s nickel packages, but Timmons himself was taken advantage of at times by teams who exploited his declining foot speed. The Dolphins upgraded, but again, there’s the question of whether they’ve paid a premium at a spot in their lineup where that wasn’t necessary.
The Saints basically punted right guard last year, cutting longtime guard Jahri Evans and only re-signing him once the Seahawks released him from their camp. Evans held up well and stayed healthy for all 16 games, but it’s no surprise the Saints tried to upgrade on a player who will turn 34 this August.
Enter Warford, who excelled as a rookie with the Lions before delivering solid-if-unspectacular play over his three ensuing seasons in Detroit. The Lions didn’t ask him to hold up for very long in pass protection under Jim Bob Cooter, with Matthew Stafford getting the ball out in 2.41 seconds last year. Drew Brees is even faster: The future Hall of Famer averaged just 2.32 seconds before releasing his passes in 2016. Teams try to counteract that by getting pressure on Brees up the middle, which makes great pass protection from guards wildly important in Sean Payton’s scheme. Warford also has the mobility to get upfield on screens, which is a must in New Orleans.
The Saints appear to have struck a decent price, giving Warford $34 million over four years with $17 million in guarantees. We’ll have to see the specific structure of the deal, which is always an adventure with the Saints, and you might argue that the Saints should have committed more of their cap space toward upgrading their perpetually dismal defense. All things considered, though, this is a very reasonable signing at an important position.
Some of it must have come from playing alongside J.J. Watt from 2014-15, but Simon was quietly a useful rotation pass-rusher on the edge for the Texans. He had 8.5 sacks and 21 quarterback knockdowns in the past two seasons while playing just more than 56 percent of Houston’s defensive snaps. There’s plenty of upside there, given that Simon is solid against the run and won’t turn 27 until October. Ironically, this is the exact sort of player former Colts general manager Ryan Grigson took chances on in free agency early during the Andrew Luck era, but the difference here is price. While Grigson paid players like Ricky Jean-Francois and Greg Toler like they were already valuable starters, new general manager Chris Ballard picked up Simon for just $13.5 million over three years with $5.5 million guaranteed.
The Bucs made a nice low-cost move by luring Baker away from Washington, where he had quietly become a disruptive defensive end in the team’s base 3-4 alignment. Baker has racked up 9.5 sacks, 27 knockdowns and 11 tackles for loss against the run over the past two years. Washington has otherwise been weak along the line of scrimmage, so it was a surprise to see the team let its best defensive lineman leave for what amounted to a pittance: Baker’s deal with Tampa is for three years and $15.8 million with $9 million guaranteed.
Washington will help replace Baker up front by adding the 27-year-old McGee, who stole a starting job up front in Oakland from free-agent addition Dan Williams and was the Raiders’ best interior lineman over the past couple of seasons. The Raiders allowed 3.9 yards per carry with McGee on the field over the past two years and 4.5 yards per attempt with him on the bench or unavailable. Injuries are the big concern, as McGee missed five games in 2014 and started nine games last season. As his role expands, McGee will need to stay on the field to live up to his five-year deal worth up to $25 million. If he can, Washington is likely to be happy with its 310-pound addition.
Leary lost his job in Dallas in 2015 through no fault of his own, when he went down early in the season with a groin injury and the Cowboys handed his spot to La’el Collins. Leary reversed the feat in 2016, taking over for Collins after the second-year player went down with a turf toe injury in September. Leary had played well as a starter in 2014 and kept it up last year, but the Cowboys were always going to go with the far cheaper Collins and allow Leary to leave.
The Broncos are likely happy they signed Leary early in the free-agent period. Given that Kevin Zeitler reset the guard market shortly thereafter at five years and $60 million with $31.5 million guaranteed, the Broncos got a good deal when they gave Leary $20 million guaranteed as part of a four-year, $35 million deal. They naturally have to be concerned that Leary’s play will dip now that he’s playing along a middling offensive line instead of between Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick, but given how awful the Broncos looked up front last year, it’s a risk they have to take.
Garcon has outperformed expectations before. Washington paid what was considered to be an exorbitant sum at the time in giving Garcon five years and $42.5 million with $20.5 million guaranteed before the 2012 season. Garcon wasn’t always productive, but he mostly stayed healthy and played out the entire five-year deal. That almost never happens with second contracts. He averaged 75 catches for 910 yards over that time span, which is solid second-receiver stuff.
Former Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is bringing a number of his old players along with him to San Francisco, and while he’d like to add Kirk Cousins to that list, Garcon is the most impactful player of the bunch. His new deal is remarkably similar to his old one; the 49ers are giving Garcon five years and $47.5 million with $20 million guaranteed.
The 49ers probably are paying a premium for familiarity with Garcon and his run at the end of the season; Garcon reportedly requested a trade earlier in the 2016 season, which should suggest where he felt he stood on Washington’s depth chart. He also turns 31 in August, so the 49ers will likely be paying for his decline years. In reality, though, this is more likely to be a two-year, $23 million deal or a three-year, $29 million deal than it is the full five-year pact, which is reasonable enough. The only odd thing is seeing the 49ers keep Garcon’s cap hit at $6.4 million this year before it escalates to an average of $10.3 million over the remainder of the deal. If anything, it seems smarter to pay Garcon now, when the team is flush with cap room and cash.
You can understand why the Dolphins would want to re-sign their 29-year-old safety as he enters the final year of his second contract. Jones has made it to only one Pro Bowl, but he’s an effective box safety with the range to create interceptions and the speed to pick up a couple of sacks per year. At the same time, here are Miami’s numbers on pass defense with and without Jones on the field last year, given that Jones missed 10 games with a torn rotator cuff:
That’s not enough to say the Dolphins are better without Jones, of course, but it’s interesting to see how they improved without him in the lineup in comparison to, say, how the Seahawks fell off without Earl Thomas around. Under any circumstances, the Dolphins had Jones signed for one more season at a cap hit of $8.0 million before the Georgia product would have hit free agency. The comparison might have been to Eric Weddle, who hit the market for his third contract at the age of 31 and picked up a four-year, $26 million deal from Baltimore with $13 million guaranteed.
Instead, the Dolphins broke the bank for Jones. They gave him $60 million over five years with $35 million in guarantees. Mike Tannenbaum roughly matched the average salary the Chiefs gave to Eric Berry, who is a three-time first-team All-Pro and nearly a full year younger than Jones. The Dolphins actually guaranteed Jones $5.2 million more than the Chiefs promised Berry. Look at the list of safety contracts in the NFL and you’ll see Jones slot ahead of everyone besides Berry and Tyrann Mathieu, who is really a cornerback when healthy. Jones also got more guaranteed money and a higher percentage of his total salary guaranteed than any other safety on a meaningful second or third contract.
Jones is a good safety being paid like a Hall of Fame-caliber defender. The Dolphins could have paid him $33.8 million or so over the next three years by going year-to-year and keeping Jones for the final season of his current deal before franchising him twice. They locked themselves in for the next three seasons instead. It’s hard to see how they saved any money with this deal, and unless Jones hits a new level of play when most safeties are beginning to decline, it’s close to impossible to figure Jones will outplay this contract.
After the Bengals allowed Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler to leave for Los Angeles and Cleveland, respectively, you get the feeling that they had to do something to bring back one of their own. Cincinnati is loath to spend on other people’s free agents, and Zeitler would have been the most obvious choice to bring back, but Kirkpatrick will join Brandon LaFell in returning.
Under Marvin Lewis, the Bengals have repeatedly invested in cornerbacks and brought them along slowly. Kirkpatrick didn’t even enter the starting lineup as a regular until his fourth season with the team. Things are different now, though, and the Bengals are more vulnerable at corner than they’ve been in a while. Leon Hall left last year. Adam Jones may not be back after being charged with assault in January. 2016 first-rounder William Jackson missed his entire rookie season with a torn pectoral, while 2014 first-rounder Darqueze Dennard has been virtually unplayable on defense at times during his first three years in the league.
Fourth-round pick Josh Shaw was impressive as the slot corner last season, but the Bengals will be happy to bring back some stability in Kirkpatrick. He hasn’t been the model of consistency as a pro, either, but Kirkpatrick has drawn a lot of tough matchups over the past two seasons and was likely drawing interest in the $10 million per year range on the open market. There’s no word yet on guaranteed money, but the five-year, $52.5 million deal Kirkpatrick signed to stick around in Cincinnati is hardly out of line with what other corners of Kirkpatrick’s caliber were likely to receive.
It’s not a surprise to see Ryan end up in Tennessee. As I mentioned earlier this year, Titans general manager Jon Robinson scouted Ryan for the Patriots and loved his college productivity. It took some time for Ryan to get there, but he had his finest season as a pro in 2016, looking every bit as good as Malcolm Butler for most of the campaign in helping push the Patriots to yet another Super Bowl.
The Titans desperately needed a cornerback after scuffling with a dismal Perrish Cox for most of 2016, so it seemed likely they would pursue Ryan. This comes in as slightly better than expected because of the price tag; the Titans had to give Ryan only three years and $30 million, a lower average salary and a shorter deal than the deals given to A.J. Bouye and Dre Kirkpatrick. The shorter contract will allow Ryan to hit free agency again after his age-28 season, which might be costly for the Titans, but they’ve filled an obvious need without paying over the odds for a useful player who appears to be improving.
Thursday, March 10
You know a player is talented when the Ravens are willing to sign him and risk forgoing a comp pick. Baltimore did just that with a safety for the second consecutive offseason, signing Jefferson from Arizona to play alongside Eric Weddle. The move will likely bring an end to Lardarius Webb‘s Ravens career, given that Jefferson will take Webb’s spot in the starting lineup. Baltimore will save $5.5 million by releasing the converted cornerback.
Jefferson is a better fit for a duo with Weddle than Webb was, in part because he’s simply a better player. Jefferson has developed into a run-thumping safety who is capable of holding his own in coverage, which will allow Weddle to spend more time reading and diagnosing plays in center field. Jefferson has been far healthier than Webb and is several years younger, having turned 25 in January. The trade-off, of course, is price: Jefferson’s four-year deal will pay him $36 million with $14 million in guarantees. That’s the eighth-highest figure in the league among safeties and the second-highest among strong safeties behind the new deal handed to Reshad Jones.
For once, the Ravens are holding onto one of their promising, young players into a second contract. After letting the likes of Arthur Jones (yay) and Kelechi Osemele (nay) leave in recent years, Baltimore turned down the option to franchise Williams and allowed their star nose tackle to reach the open market. Although rumors bizarrely linked Williams to the Giants, who just spent serious money on a run-stuffing nose tackle last year in Damon Harrison, the market didn’t go bonkers over Williams in advance of a draft that should have plenty of defensive linemen available.
Having ventured out, Williams quickly returned to his only professional team and signed what will still be a hefty extension with the Ravens. Harrison signed a five-year, $46.3 million deal with the Giants that guaranteed “Snacks” $24 million. Williams unsurprisingly topped those numbers, earning a five-year, $54 million contract with $27.5 million in guarantees. It’s no bargain, but Williams will continue to anchor the league’s fifth-best run defense for years to come.
Things worked out reasonably well in the long run for Okung, who infamously left a ton of money on the table last offseason in an attempt to represent himself in negotiations. The Broncos declined their option on what would have been a four-year, $47 million extension to keep him in Denver, but having hired professional representation, Okung bounced back. His new deal with the Chargers is for four years and $53 million, with $25 million guaranteed.
We don’t know the structure of the deal yet, but the annual salary and guarantee number suggest this is likely going to commit Okung to Los Angeles for two years, which is reasonable enough and in line with what other left tackles are getting in the market. It’s certainly better to give Okung two years and $25 million than it would be to give, say, Matt Kalil the same sort of guarantees. Okung would be an upgrade on the likely-to-be-released King Dunlap when healthy, but health is a perpetual concern of his. The 29-year-old has made it through just one 16-game season as a professional and has missed 24 games in his seven-year career.
Trade: QB Brock Osweiler, Browns (from Texans)
Grade for Browns: B- | Grade for Texans: B
The Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans completed a stunning trade Thursday, and it might be one of the rare moves in which both teams win. Houston hit the reset button on its disastrous decision to sign Osweiler last offseason and sent the embattled quarterback to Cleveland along with a 2017 sixth-round pick and a second-rounder in the 2018 draft in exchange for a 2017 fourth-rounder. If the math seems off to you, you aren’t crazy: A second-rounder is worth more than a fourth-rounder. The debate over how much a second-round pick is worth in a vacuum might be what ends up deciding whether this trade was a good idea.
In December, I suggested the Browns make this exact sort of trade with the Texans in what essentially amounted to buying a draft pick. I won’t pretend that I expected it to actually happen. While this sort of salary dump is common in other sports, there has never really been an NFL deal that was as nakedly about getting rid of a contractual albatross as this one.
With a deal as puzzling and unprecedented as this, I decided to dig deeper into all of the questions surrounding the trade here.
The Eagles suddenly look different on offense, huh? Having struggled through a season with Nelson Agholor, Jordan Matthews and Dorial Green-Beckham as their wide receivers of note, Philly has made massive strides at wideout by buying low on Torrey Smith from the 49ers and doing the same with Jeffery. The Bears passed on franchising Jeffery a second time at $17 million, but the former Pro Bowler reportedly turned down a long-term deal with the Vikings to take a one-year, $14 million contract with Philadelphia.
It should be telling that Jeffery had a down year and missed four games thanks to a PED suspension but was still able to get what is essentially the same one-year deal he picked up on the franchise tag from Chicago last year. In his four years as a starter, Jeffery is ninth among wideouts in both cumulative receiving yards and receiving yards per game, despite having Jay Cutler as his best quarterback in that time. With him having just turned 27, there’s plenty of reason to think Jeffery will rank among the top half of starting NFL wide receivers.
The one-year deal gives the Eagles an opportunity to evaluate Jeffery before deciding whether to keep him around. Matthews’ future with the team might depend on whether the Eagles like what they see with Jeffery. Howie Roseman is as aggressive in the trade market as anybody in football, and with Matthews entering the final year of his deal, Philadelphia might very well see what’s available for their former second-round pick. Fans with Agholor jerseys, meanwhile, might want to quietly place them on eBay before supply outstrips even ironic demand.
If you were picking two cornerbacks 25 or younger to build around, you might very well choose Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, who will be teaming up at corner for the Jags the next few years. Bouye came on as an undrafted free agent for the Texans and had a strange career. He was productive in 2014, if inconsistent, and his role on defense was diminished when the Texans drafted Kevin Johnson in the first round of the 2015 draft. When Johnson missed most of 2016 with a foot injury, Bouye returned to the defensive rotation and flourished, taking away receivers in the slot and on the outside of the formation.
Both Ramsey and Bouye have experience playing in the slot, which will allow Jags defensive coordinator Todd Wash plenty of flexibility in how he wants to use his two corners. Although Wash is a holdover from the old staff, he might choose to play more man coverage than Gus Bradley did during his time in Jacksonville, and Ramsey and Bouye should be able to hold up relatively well. With the addition of Calais Campbell up front, this is a scary defense, arguably one edge rusher away from ranking among the best in football.
There is some risk with Bouye, given that this was really the first season he played at a high level. The Texans evaluated him after a season as their third corner in 2014 and used a first-round pick on a cornerback anyway, which reveals what they thought of him at the time. Bouye’s five-year deal is for $67.5 million with $26 million fully guaranteed and $44 million the first three years, which compares favorably with the $39.7 million Janoris Jenkins received on his five-year, $62.5 million deal with the Giants last offseason. If Bouye plays at the same level he did last year, the Jaguars might have the best pair of young corners in football. “If” can be a very lucrative word.
We all saw the Patriots going after a big-name cornerback in free agency, right? The Patriots had their own cornerback duo to worry about with Logan Ryan an unrestricted free agent and Malcolm Butler hitting restricted free agency, but they zagged and went after a target nobody was suspecting within their own division. The Bills declined to franchise Gilmore at the $15 million mark, but the Patriots decided to invest five years and $65 million on the former first-round pick, giving him $40 million in guaranteed money.
This is, by my count, the fourth time the Pats have targeted a truly top-level defender in free agency and paid market value on an annual basis. They signed Rosevelt Colvin away from the Bears in 2003 to get after the quarterback, but Colvin suffered a serious hip injury two games into his Patriots career and totaled just 25.5 sacks in six seasons with New England. Adalius Thomas was supposed to be a versatile outside linebacker with pass-rushing ability, but he produced just 14.5 sacks in three seasons and fell into Belichick’s doghouse before being released and retiring.
Darrelle Revis won a Super Bowl with the Patriots, and Belichick will hope that Gilmore lives up to Revis’ level of play during his lone year in New England. Gilmore has been inconsistent as a pro, flashing weeks of brilliance along with games in which he is taken to school by opposing No. 1 wideouts. It’s easy to assume the Patriots will magically turn Gilmore into one of the league’s five best cornerbacks — and to be sure, the 26-year-old has some development left — but it’s far from a fait accompli that Gilmore will live up to this contract.
Although the specifics of his deal remain to be seen, he’s being paid like a top cornerback now. Consider that Janoris Jenkins picked up a relatively similar five-year and $62.5 million deal from the Giants last year, with just $28.5 million in guarantees. If the initial numbers are accurate, Gilmore is getting a dramatic bump in guaranteed money and would likely be on the Pats’ books for a minimum of three seasons.
This also changes how the Patriots will evaluate their own cornerbacks going forward. It sets a floor for Butler, who has been a better corner than Gilmore the past two seasons. The Patriots were rumored to be considering a deal that would send Butler, in his final year of cost control, to the Saints for wideout Brandin Cooks, who has one year and a fifth-year option remaining on his rookie deal. The Patriots could trade Butler and try to re-sign Ryan, allow Ryan to leave and re-sign Butler or let both corners depart and work with Gilmore on one side across from Eric Rowe. Gilmore is the first of many decisions the Pats will have to make over the next few days.
If the Browns struggle on offense in 2017, it won’t be for lack of protection. The Joe Thomas-led offensive line was already the strongest part of the Cleveland offense, but the Browns have invested heavily in upgrading at the line of scrimmage over the past 24 hours. In addition to extending left guard Joel Bitonio and signing center JC Tretter away from the Packers, the Browns have reset the guard market by nabbing one of the league’s best players at the position from their in-state rivals in Cincinnati.
While the Bengals suddenly look bereft up front after losing Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth, the Browns will have one of the best on-paper offensive lines in football with their new star guard. Zeitler is getting five years and $60 million from Cleveland with $31.5 million in guarantees, topping the five-year, $58.5 million deal Kelechi Osemele extracted from the Raiders last season with $25.4 million guaranteed. It’s hard for this deal to provide much surplus value just by virtue of how much Zeitler is being paid, and there’s no guarantee that a guard in one system will succeed in another, but Zeitler looked great playing under Browns head coach Hue Jackson during his time in Cincinnati.
The Cleveland offensive line suddenly looks scary. Joe Thomas and Bitonio line up on the left side, and with Tretter at the pivot and Zeitler slotting in at right guard, the Browns might very well choose to keep former first-round pick Cameron Erving at right tackle. Erving had been a major disappointment at both center and guard before shifting to right tackle for the season finale; he’ll compete with Austin Pasztor and 2016 third-round pick Shon Coleman for reps at what is now the lone glaring weak spot on the Cleveland line.
Jackson is a more unique player than a lot of people realize. In many ways, he’s a throwback to players from the ’70s, when it was hardly out of the question for a speedy wideout to average nearly 18 yards per catch. Jackson led the league in yards per reception for the third time in his career this past season, and he’s averaging 17.7 yards per catch over his career. Looking at receivers under 6 feet who caught 300 passes or more through their age-30 season, Jackson has the fifth-highest yards per catch mark since the merger, and everyone around him retired 20-plus years ago.
Jackson’s deal is hardly unreasonable, given that the Bucs are paying him $35 million over three years with $20 million in guarantees. Tampa also needed a deep threat and a secondary wideout to take some of the heat off Mike Evans; they relied heavily on Adam Humphries and Cameron Brate as secondary weapons last year. The concern for Jackson, as it is for receivers who rely primarily on speed, is how he’ll age. Jackson’s game is built on the threat of stretching teams deep and using that to work back toward the quarterback. He rarely goes over the middle of the field — just four of his 56 catches last year came between the hashmarks. Jackson has been this player for years, and he has been a valuable weapon, but when the cliff comes for players in this vein, it often comes quickly.
Dave Gettleman has gone against the grain in the past and won. Nobody thought Michael Oher would be a solid left tackle after he washed out of Baltimore and Tennessee, but Oher did a fine job in 2015 before suffering what might have been a career-ending concussion last year. Gettleman gave Oher an extension that might now be rendered irrelevant, leaving the Panthers with a hole at left tackle in a market in which there aren’t many left tackles available.
Kalil makes some sense for the Panthers, given the presence of his brother, Ryan, on the roster at center. After excelling as a rookie and making the Pro Bowl during Adrian Peterson’s MVP campaign, Kalil rapidly fell off, thanks to injuries that led to offseason surgeries on both of his knees in early 2015. He played through pain for several years and struggled mightily before eventually going down with a torn labrum in his hip.
A deal similar to the two-year, $7 million one Oher signed before the 2015 season would have made sense given Kalil’s issues. Instead, the Panthers basically bought the player Kalil was back in 2012, giving him a five-year, $55 million deal with $27 million in guarantees. It’s one thing for a team to pay a player for an outlier season he had just before free agency, as the Packers did with Nick Perry. It’s another to trade for a guy who is four years removed from his standout season. The Panthers essentially paid Kalil like he was Anthony Castonzo or Eric Fisher, both of whom have been far more productive than he has in recent years. If Kalil is healthy, there’s a chance that he can live up to this deal. It’s just tough to imagine Kalil suddenly looking like his old self after four years in the weeds.
After paying a premium to bring in Kyle Juszczyk and Marquise Goodwin, the 49ers continued their tour of relatively fungible talents by signing Smith away from the Raiders. Oakland was happy to let Smith leave after middling results from a two-year, $7 million deal. The Raiders were well below-average against tight ends in 2016, and Smith’s presence as a coverage linebacker did not help matters. The Raiders never found a solution at inside linebacker, which hurt, but Smith didn’t stand out as a run defender, either.
Bringing Smith in as a warm body is one thing. It’s hard to fathom that the market for Smith was active enough for the 49ers to commit five years and $24.5 million, including $13 million in guarantees, to bring Smith onboard. Outside linebackers who don’t rush the passer just aren’t that hard to come by. The 49ers could have taken a swing at DeAndre Levy, who was cut by the Lions today, and gotten a far more impactful player when healthy without having to make this sort of commitment, or they could have gone after Zach Brown, who excelled inside for Buffalo last season. The early returns on John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan are that they’re targeting specific players at the expense of general improvement and have very little feel for positional scarcity. Those aren’t good signs.
Despite committing hundreds of millions of dollars in free agency each of the past few offseasons, GM Dave Caldwell has managed to leave the Jags with nearly $74 million in cap space by rolling money over and releasing the mistakes of the past. With prior free-agent blunders such as Julius Thomas and Jared Odrick leaving town, the Jags can afford to go after top-tier talent to build upon a defense that was much improved last season, jumping from 26th to 13th in DVOA.
Campbell is unquestionably a great player, and it isn’t out of the question for Jacksonville to give him $15 million per year. Assuming this is structured like a typical Caldwell deal, his four-year, $60 million deal will pay out the $30 million in guarantees by the end of Year 2, allowing the Jags to move on if Campbell fails to live up to his level of play in Arizona.
The fit will be interesting. The most obvious role for Campbell along the Jacksonville defensive line would be the role given to Malik Jackson a season ago, where he alternated between playing as a three-technique and a five-technique on the interior. Campbell is one of a few defensive linemen in the league capable of doing both, and he might also get reps at defensive end across from Yannick Ngakoue and the frustrating Dante Fowler Jr. It’s a little surprising to see the Jaguars target a player who will turn 31 on Sept. 1, but for Caldwell, the time to win is now.
The Browns are continuing their rebuild by following some of what turned Oakland around and building around their offensive line. They signed former Packers starter JC Tretter to a deal to take over at center, and they’ve locked up the left side of their line for the foreseeable future by handing Bitonio a six-year, $51.2 million deal with $23.7 million in guarantees.
It’s a little surprising to see Bitonio take this deal now, given that the guard market is about to reset in free agency with the deals for Kevin Zeitler and T.J. Lang. Bitonio’s deal mirrors the one the Chiefs gave to Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who picked up a roughly similar average annual salary and total guarantee on his five-year, $42.2 million deal with $20.1 million in guaranteed cash. Both players were one year from unrestricted free agency, but most would argue that Bitonio is the better player, given that Duvernay-Tardif has been a starter for only two years, while Bitonio just finished this third year. Bitonio has struggled some with injuries, which might have led him to rush into an extension. This is a good price for the Browns.
You don’t see ads on TV for Ferraris, do you? It’s hard to get discounts on premium talent, and the Cardinals weren’t ever going to get much of one on Jones. We’ll have to wait for the year-to-year details to get a sense of where this contract truly stands compared to other edge rushers, but Jones’ new deal gives him $83 million over five years with $53 million in guarantees.
The obvious comparison is to the contract Olivier Vernon signed with the Giants last year. Vernon’s five-year deal was worth $85 million and held $52.5 million in guarantees. Jones is the better edge rusher of the two, but Vernon is considered to be better against the run. Jones would have gotten more, but there’s one more important factor. Vernon was a true unrestricted free agent and allowed to negotiate with any team, while Jones was franchised by the Cardinals and prevented from hitting the free market. The Cardinals didn’t get much of a discount, but even Ferrari has to sell cars.
Buffalo’s months-long game of chicken finally paid off, as the organization’s public posturing convinced Taylor to accept a reduced offer. Taylor was in line to make $40.5 million during the 2017-2018 seasons, but this restructure lops $10 million off the top and turns the contract into a two-year, $30.5 million pact. The Bills would have had three years and $42 million to work with at the end of Taylor’s old extension, which would have been a bargain if Taylor had continued to play well, but those years will now void, with Buffalo keeping them on the contract to free up cap space. They’ll owe $5.6 million in dead money on their 2019 cap when Taylor hits free agency.
Given that the Bills have no path to a viable replacement and Taylor is now getting what Mike Glennon received from the Bears in free agency, this is a very solid deal for Buffalo general manager Doug Whaley. Taylor deserves a longer deal, and the Bills might well have to go through more contract drama in a year, as Taylor approaches a lame-duck 2018 season, but this locks in a solid quarterback while giving Buffalo time to further evaluate Taylor and work on finding a long-term starter.
Given a one-year prove-it deal from the Packers last year after struggling to make an impact as a pass-rusher, Perry proved it. After recording just 12.5 sacks in his first four campaigns, the 26-year-old Perry racked up 11 sacks to go with 16 knockdowns in a breakout season. The Packers turned down his fifth-year option in 2015 and declined to offer Perry a long-term deal last offseason, but they are now bringing Perry back on a five-year, $60 million deal with $18.5 million in guarantees.
Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson know Perry better than the market, but it’s hard to believe that he took an enormous enough leap forward to justify this sort of deal after the Packers repeatedly declined to commit to their former first-round pick. It’s probably an overpay, but there isn’t really anyone else on the market for Green Bay to go after, in terms of edge rushers. Chandler Jones, Jason Pierre-Paul and Melvin Ingram were all franchised. They could have targeted somebody such as Connor Barwin or DeMarcus Ware, but Perry’s relative youth — he’ll be 27 in April — offers them a little more upside. The $18.5 million in guarantees also suggests the Packers can get out of this deal after two years without much fuss, rendering the $60 million figure less worrisome.
Have you ever looked up on Facebook somebody you vaguely remembered from a party three years ago and thought they looked great? Have you then paid that person three years and $45 million to come to Chicago and hang out with you? Congrats! You’re the Chicago Bears. The money is a huge sum for a player who really hasn’t played much since 2014, but with $18.5 million guaranteed, it’s really likely to be a one-year deal, with the Bears retaining the option to keep Glennon for a couple seasons if he works out.
Even if you think of it as a one-year, $15 million deal, it’s hard to figure whom the Bears were negotiating against for Glennon to the extent that they had to pay this much for a guy with 630 career passes. Brian Hoyer has outperformed Glennon during his career. Jay Cutler, for that matter, has been a far superior quarterback to Glennon. Glennon is not getting as much as Brock Osweiler got from the Texans last year — Osweiler picked up $37 million in guarantees, which prevented the Texans from moving on after one season — but Osweiler was unequivocally better in Denver than Glennon was in Tampa.
Is Glennon really a diamond in the rough? It’s hard to say. Looking back through some of Glennon’s old games, you’ll see a quarterback who flashes competence but was consistently inconsistent. Glennon has the sort of height (6-foot-7) and arm strength coaches crave in quarterbacks, but he struggles to reliably turn that strength into zip on his passes. Some passes come out looking like fastballs, but others pop up as changeups. He’ll miss on deep throws, such as this would-be touchdown to Vincent Jackson in his last start, which ended up as an interception. Glennon was able to get by for chunks of time in Tampa by throwing fades to massive wideouts such as Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, which is less about a quarterback and more about his receivers. If the Bears only had a 6-foot-3 wideout who routinely won on jump balls …
Glennon is certainly capable of pushing the ball downfield, as he has averaged 9.2 air yards per pass as a pro. He stands strong in the pocket and doesn’t stare down at the rush, almost to his detriment at times, as he’ll struggle to feel pass pressure and take sacks he shouldn’t. The Bears have a good offensive line, and it’s possible he’ll grow more comfortable in the pocket with more reps.
The one thing Glennon clearly lacks, though, is accuracy. He completed just 60.4 percent of his passes at North Carolina State, including a 58.5 percent mark as a senior. History tells us that quarterbacks rarely improve their accuracy by a significant amount as they enter the NFL, and indeed, Glennon’s completion percentage dipped to 59.4 percent in Tampa. You can explain some of that by the fact that he has thrown deeper passes, but a closer look reveals the problem:
If Glennon can start making those shorter throws in traffic, he’ll be a viable starter. But that’s hardly a sure thing.
After Marquise Goodwin picked up two years and $8 million from the 49ers Wednesday, the league’s primal urge to sign non-Sammy Watkins receivers away from the Bills hit a fever pitch on Thursday with the Woods signing. Los Angeles committed five years and $39 million for Woods to replace Kenny Britt in their lineup, including $15 million guaranteed. This comes one year after the Rams gave Tavon Austin a four-year, $42-million extension with an unreal $28.5 million in guarantees, a deal that might be the worst contract in football this year. Unless the Rams stretch his roster bonus (which would be an even worse idea), Austin is going to get $15 million in 2017, which will be the third-highest cap hit for a wideout in football.
What are the Rams getting with Woods? It’s hard to tell. He hasn’t been particularly productive, despite spending all four of his seasons in Buffalo as a starting wide receiver. Among the 33 wideouts with 45 or more starts since 2013, Woods ranks 28th in receptions, 31st in receiving yards and tied for 31st in touchdowns. He’s still young — Woods turns 25 in April — but there isn’t much evidence that he is developing as a pass-catcher.
The other benefit to Woods is his blocking as a wideout, and indeed, he might be one of the best blockers in football on the edge. He offers value there, but how often do teams really value blocking in their wide receivers? Isn’t it likely that the Rams could have picked up a decent blocker on the edge at wideout for a fraction of Woods’ price? Woods feels like a weak-hitting first baseman with a good glove, where the secondary skill is useful but doesn’t do nearly enough to mitigate his missing bat.
Remember Torrey Smith? In a way, Smith is a cautionary tale for teams targeting deep threats such as DeSean Jackson and Kenny Stills in free agency. After moving on from Joe Flacco in Baltimore, Smith was anonymous during his two-year run in San Francisco, catching a total of just 53 passes for 930 yards and seven touchdowns. Granted, he wasn’t working in great offenses, but he was outproduced by the likes of Quinton Patton and Jeremy Kerley last year.
It’s possible that Smith is toast, but because he didn’t suffer any serious injuries during his time in San Francisco, it’s likelier that he was stuck in a terrible scheme fit. Things should go much better in Philadelphia, where the Eagles have a promising quarterback in Carson Wentz and have been desperately crying out for somebody capable of stretching the field. Smith should help there. Smith was also a monster in terms of drawing pass interference penalties in Baltimore, picking up 26 calls for 571 yards over his four years in town. That would be a boon for Wentz, who drew only 100 yards of PI penalties last year. At three years and $15 million, Smith is a relative bargain for the Eagles.
What a strange career Britt has had. He has played on one team with a winning record, the 2011 Titans, in a season when he went down for the year after three games. His quarterbacks, in order of pass attempts thrown Britt’s way, do not make up a particularly proud list: Kerry Collins, Case Keenum, Jake Locker, Matt Hasselbeck, Vince Young, Nick Foles, Jared Goff, Shaun Hill, Austin Davis, Ryan Fitzpatrick and even Rusty Smith have shared a huddle with Britt during his eight-year pro career.
Britt has been modestly productive over that stretch, even given the quarterback issues, and he has managed to stay relatively healthy in recent years after struggling with injuries earlier in his career. After missing 23 games over four seasons between 2010 and 2013, Britt missed just one contest during his three seasons with the Rams. He’s probably better than the public perceives him to be.
The problem for this deal with the Browns, though, is that they just invested four draft picks at wide receiver in last year’s draft, including a first-rounder on Corey Coleman. Cleveland is not necessarily beholden to any of those guys, and most of them were late-round picks, but if Britt and Coleman are occupying two spots in the lineup, it’s hard to see the Browns re-signing Terrelle Pryor. Pryor, a former quarterback, wasn’t franchise-tagged by the team, and in his first full season as a wideout, he was more productive than Britt has ever been. Pryor is also nearly a full year younger than Britt. It would be a downgrade to swap Britt for Pryor.
The Rams have spent years attempting to develop their left tackle of the future — without any success. Now they have their best left tackle since Hall of Famer Orlando Pace. Whitworth isn’t quite a Hall of Famer, but he has been one of the five best left tackles in football for several years now while protecting Andy Dalton‘s blind side in Cincinnati. He hasn’t slipped much, if at all. Stats LLC suggests Whitworth didn’t allow a single sack during the 2016 season.
The 35-year-old obviously isn’t going to be Los Angeles’ left tackle for the long haul, which raises questions as to why a rebuilding team would hand Whitworth a three-year, $36 million deal. There are two clear arguments for the deal. One is that the Rams are really committed to Whitworth for only one year; they guaranteed the three-time Pro Bowler $12.5 million in 2017 with just $2.5 million due in guarantees the following year. That’s paying Whitworth less than the franchise tag would have cost this season.
More importantly, this gives the Rams some semblance of an offensive infrastructure as they try to evaluate 2016 first overall pick Jared Goff. Goff was a mess in the pocket as a rookie but also was beset by pass pressure; he faced the league’s third-highest blitz rate (34.3 percent) and second-highest pressure rate (35.6 percent) while taking sacks an unreal 11.2 percent of the time. No quarterback was going to look remotely competent under that level of pressure, let alone somebody as inexperienced as Goff. Whitworth should take over for the massively frustrating Greg Robinson and lock down one side of the line for the time being.
Wednesday, March 8
Although Stills didn’t get the $12 million per year his agents were trying to set as a baseline in the media, the former Saints receiver won’t be too upset about the offer he’s taking home. Miami shelled out $20 million in guarantees as part of a four-year, $32 million deal to bring its third wideout back to South Florida.
The Dolphins are bringing back a player coming off a nine-touchdown season, one that isn’t supported by his usage rate and is almost guaranteed to regress toward the mean. In terms of total production during his two seasons with the Dolphins, Stills is 77th in the league in receptions (between Seth Roberts and Quinton Patton) and 57th in receiving yards (between Quincy Enunwa and Robert Woods). Nobody’s expecting him to catch a high percentage of his passes because he is thrown so many deep balls, but Stills has the fifth-worst catch rate in the league among guys with 100 or more targets the past two seasons, at 47.9 percent. Because it takes so many passes for him to hook up with his quarterback, the Dolphins generate only 8.1 yards per Stills target, which is 35th in the league and tied with Michael Floyd and Dontrelle Inman (and just ahead of Kendall Wright).
Unless the Dolphins target Stills more, he isn’t going to offer much of a return on this deal. Where are those targets coming from? Jarvis Landry probably isn’t going anywhere. DeVante Parker has at least two years left on his rookie deal and has looked brilliant when healthy. The Dolphins committed to a run-heavy approach once Jay Ajayi got the starting job last season. This is the same organization that traded three picks, including their third- and fourth-round selections in the 2017 draft, to move up and grab Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo in April. Carroo now has no path to a meaningful role in the offense one year after he was worth what amounted to a mid-second-round pick of draft capital per Chase Stuart’s chart. Carroo might very well be a bust, but it’s both too early to judge and a horrible sign for Miami’s ability to gauge talent if he’s a sure-fire failure after one season.
Mike Tannenbaum is paying for the player the Dolphins want Stills to be, which is something approximating DeSean Jackson. At 24, Stills could develop into that sort of player, but he hasn’t been that guy yet in his career. This is a receiver who has one 100-yard game (and that was exactly 100 yards) in his time with the Dolphins, a wideout who did most of his damage against average-or-worse pass defenses, such as those of the Bills, Browns, Bengals, 49ers and Jets, last season.
That’s a guy worth taking a shot on, but even in this inflated market, $20 million in guarantees is an exorbitant sum. The Dolphins are spending hand-over-fist to bring back players such as Andre Branch and Stills, under the logic that they’re talented, young, core pieces on what was a playoff team last season. They were useful, but the Dolphins grossly outperformed their Pythagorean Expectation in 2016 by going an unsustainable 8-2 in one-score games. This isn’t a budding contender that needs to be kept together at all costs. It’s a team that could have used the compensatory pick that would have come from letting Stills leave while signing somebody such as Torrey Smith to stretch the field at a fraction of the cost.
Trade: TE Dwayne Allen, Patriots (from Colts)
Grade for both teams: B-
If you loved the Martellus Bennett trade, here’s the sequel! The Pats made a trade with the Colts identical to what they did with the Bears a year ago, sending a fourth-round pick to Indy in exchange for a tight end who wasn’t in their plans and a sixth-round selection. The calculus is the same: The Patriots seem to generate mid-to-late-round picks at will by trading down on draft day and acquiring compensatory picks, and Bill Belichick is very comfortable using them to buy low on players who might improve the middle and back ends of his roster.
As a player and a value proposition, Allen is slightly different than Bennett. He seems to lack Bennett’s upside, given that we’re still waiting on the sixth-year player to top the 45 receptions and 521 yards he generated as a rookie back in 2012. Allen has given up targets to Coby Fleener and Jack Doyle, but in New England, he’ll do the same behind Rob Gronkowski. Belichick and Josh McDaniels use two-tight-end sets as a way to disguise their intentions and create defensive mismatches, but Allen will likely have the most utility for the Patriots as a blocker.
The concern with Allen, to a greater extent than was the case with Bennett, is injuries. He hasn’t played a 16-game season since that rookie season, and he missed virtually all of the 2013 season before losing eight games over the past three seasons combined. The advantage he holds is cost control: Although the Patriots had Bennett under contract for only one season before he hit free agency, Allen is under contract for two years at or around $5 million per season before his contract spikes to $7.4 million in 2019. Allen gives the Patriots financial flexibility and a viable second starter at tight end, while the Colts get a draft pick for a player new general manager Chris Ballard might very well have cut anyway. Both sides benefit.
Last month, I suggested the 49ers conduct themselves in a relatively conservative manner at quarterback this offseason. While it remains to be seen whether they’ll make another big move under center, Hoyer is the perfect base to provide functional offense without requiring serious commitment. The two-year, $12 million deal he signed this offseason is probably a little high, given that he took one year and $2 million to sign with the Bears last year, but it’s hardly an overpay for a team with plenty of cap money to burn and no other passers on the roster. Plus, Hoyer has experience with Shanahan, leading the Browns to a 7-6 record in his starts in 2014, his new coach’s lone season in Cleveland.
Hoyer did piece together an excellent 200-pass stretch for the Bears last season, completing 67 percent of his passes while throwing six touchdowns without a pick and taking just four sacks. QBR drags Hoyer’s performance down a bit and pegs him as 17th in the league with a 61.1 opponent-adjusted QBR. Those opponent adjustments are key; the four games Hoyer started and finished came against the Colts, Cowboys, Jaguars, and Lions, whose average rank in DVOA was 23rd. 49ers fans should temper their expectations some, but Hoyer is somewhere in the 26-34 range of available quarterbacks.
We don’t often see a run on fullbacks, but a number of fullbacks came off the market Wednesday. Most notable was Juszczyk, who was lured to San Francisco with a staggering deal. The three-year starter signed a four-year, $21 million deal with $10.5 million guaranteed, a whopping sum when you consider that the previous largest average salary for a pure fullback was the $2.3 million owed to Kansas City’s Anthony Sherman. Cory Harkey had previously seen the largest guarantee for a fullback at all of $2.5 million.
Is there evidence that Juszczyk deserves a premium over other fullbacks? Not especially. He has caught more passes than typical fullbacks coming out of the backfield, having racked up 97 receptions for 769 yards the past three seasons, but those passes have mostly been checkdowns, and they haven’t really helped Baltimore’s offense. He has been below-average in terms of individual receiving DVOA two of the past three seasons, and while that’s scheme-dependent, it suggests that Juszczyk’s production hasn’t helped Baltimore move the chains on a notable basis. The past three seasons, 36.1 percent of his receptions have turned into first downs, which is just about league average for backs.
The Harvard product has seven career carries, so he isn’t moving the needle much there. The Ravens’ rushing attack ranked 18th in DVOA in 2014 and 2015 before dropping to 21st last season, and though it would be unfair to pin that on the fullback, it isn’t as if there’s much evidence that he’s a better run-blocker than other players at his position. It’s hard to figure that he’s significantly more effective than Patrick DiMarco, Kyle Shanahan’s previous fullback, who joined Mike Tolbert in signing a four-year, $8.5 million deal with the Bills. They were the last team to hand out a notable deal for a fullback when they gave Jerome Felton a four-year, $9.2 million deal after the 2014 season, but the Bills cut Felton one year into the deal and re-signed him for the minimum.
The reality is fullbacks are easier to find than players at just about any other position in the league. Juszczyk was a fourth-round pick, but DiMarco was cast off by the Chiefs. Tolbert was an afterthought short-yardage halfback on the Chargers roster before he excelled in Carolina. Sherman was traded for a failed returner in Javier Arenas. Good organizations trust their ability to scout and find fullbacks in the later rounds of the draft or as undrafted free agents. The 49ers can afford to pay a premium for Juszczyk, but this sort of inability to read the market and value positional scarcity doesn’t bode well for their future spending habits.
After spending years frustrated by the unfulfilled promise of Johnathan Cyprien, the Jaguars made a move to upgrade at strong safety by taking themselves to Church (sorry). A former undrafted free agent, Church gives the Jags a versatile safety who is capable of playing center field and plugging up against the run, though Tashaun Gipson already fills the deep center role for Jacksonville. His average — reportedly about $6 million per year — leaves him among the higher-paid strong safeties in football, but the Jags might very well be better off paying that rate than going after one of the free-agent cornerbacks in the $10 million to $12 million per year range.
The league is changing, and with it, offensive line salaries are beginning to shift. Teams spent years placing their best pass-protecting tackle on the left side to block star edge rushers, turning left tackle into a premium financial position. In 2016, 14 of the 15 largest cap hits among tackles belonged to left tackles; the only right tackle on the list was Lane Johnson, who will move to left tackle for the Eagles over the next year or two. Teams used to suit up an in-line tight end next to the right tackle, creating an easy chip opportunity and a longer path to the quarterback, but as offenses have evolved, that isn’t as reliably the case.
In recent years, several star pass-rushers have shifted from the left side of the offense to the right, trading the ability to attack a quarterback’s blind side for the opportunity to go after a weaker tackle in pass protection. J.J. Watt, one of the best defensive players in football history when healthy, started as an interior rusher but essentially played left defensive end (and lined up against right tackles) in 2015. Vic Beasley Jr., who led the league in sacks this year, picked up the vast majority of his 15.5 takedowns lining up against right tackles. Khalil Mack, who has a league-high 26 sacks over the last two seasons, lines up at left defensive end.
The Lions’ signing of Wagner is an indicator the league is about to catch up and treat right tackles more like the guys on the left side. It also means the Lions are moving on from Riley Reiff, their former first-round pick who played left tackle for four years before moving to the right side last year. They’re reportedly paying in excess of $9 million per season, which would shatter the ceiling for the right tackle market. Keep in mind that outside of Johnson, the largest average annual salary for a right tackle currently under contract is the $6.8 million due Bryan Bulaga. The Lions have a relatively cheap offensive line by virtue of lining up draft picks on rookie deals at every other spot (pending any decision to retain guard Larry Warford), so it will be easier for them to swallow the premium they’re paying for Wagner.
This is a fascinating signing, and it runs the full gamut of possibilities. Marshall could be a masterstroke for the Giants; he could also help bring the team down from the inside out. It’s a high-risk, high-reward deal for a player who looked like one of the best receivers in football as recently as 2015. The money in the deal seems reasonable, given that his $6 million average is in line with the likes of Travis Benjamin and Golden Tate, and while Marshall shined brilliantly before quickly wearing out his welcome in prior stops, the Giants should be able to get out of this deal after one year if things go south. (We’ll know more when the full contract terms come out.)
Ben McAdoo plays virtually every offensive snap in 11 personnel, with one running back, one tight end and three wideouts. After releasing Victor Cruz, the Giants needed a wide receiver, but Marshall isn’t a like-for-like replacement. He occasionally travels into the slot, enjoying some success there against the Patriots in 2015, but the 11-year NFL veteran is likely going to spend most of his time outside. The Giants will occasionally line Odell Beckham Jr. in the slot to get him away from No. 1 cornerbacks and create more space for him to run fades and go routes, but this should primarily free up the slot for second-year wideout Sterling Shepard, where the Oklahoma product is at his best.
On the other hand, it’s also fair to wonder whether 2015 was Marshall’s last gasp as a star wideout. Ryan Fitzpatrick and his fellow quarterbacks didn’t do the Jets’ receivers any favors last year, but Marshall was a stud with Fitzpatrick in 2015 and fell off dramatically last season. After posting 109 catches for 1,502 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns in 2015, Marshall caught just 59 passes for 788 yards and three scores last season.
I went back and looked at every wideout who played 10 or more games for the same team during their age-31 (Marshall’s 2015) and age-32 (2016) campaigns since 1970. Marshall’s drop-off was one of the largest ever. On a percentage basis, Marshall ranked in the top four in terms of receptions lost, receiving yards lost and touchdowns lost. The players who were around him don’t resemble Marshall in style, but they didn’t do much more in the NFL. Santana Moss was a relative nonfactor after 31. Troy Brown moved into a backup role. Roddy White never bounced back to his previous level of play. Maybe Marshall will be the exception to the rule. Joey Galloway was able to turn the jets back on.
But given how the Giants desperately need to upgrade their running game and offensive line while attempting to keep together their defensive line, Marshall might be a luxury purchase. The Giants aren’t as close to a Super Bowl as they seem; they were 11-5 last year, but with an 8.8-win Pythagorean expectation, which suggests they grossly outperformed their actual level of play. They were 8-3 in one-score games, narrowly beating the likes of the Rams, Eagles, Bengals and Bears to push their way into the playoffs, and while their defense was excellent after making several free-agent additions, they were among the healthiest units in the league. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Giants disappoint and regress toward the mean with Marshall, perhaps unfairly, blamed for the decline.
Addae is a problematic player. He’ll flash moments in which he looks like an impactful player, attacking the line of scrimmage to take away running lanes. He’s competent in coverage for a guy who primarily plays as a strong safety, which is hardly a given for players at that position. Addae only became a starter on a full-time basis in 2015 and played his best football after returning from injury last season. He’s a functional part in what was a wildly underrated Chargers defense that finished eighth in DVOA last season despite missing a number of key contributors.
There’s also the other side of Addae, the one that rightfully earned a reputation as a cheap-shot artist in years past. Addae has injured multiple Chiefs players over the past few years, including Jeremy Maclin early in the 2016 season. His most notable hit of the year came on a play in which he tried to avoid head-hunting and went low on Cecil Shorts III, inflicting what is likely to be a career-ending knee injury upon the 29-year-old wideout. Shorts suggested the play wasn’t dirty after the game, but most safeties in the league have found a way to deal with slants without flinging themselves at a receiver’s head or knees.
Beyond the moral concerns, Addae’s style has made it difficult for the former undrafted free agent to stay on the field. He has missed time with injuries in each of the past three seasons, including a fractured collarbone last year and a scary concussion (or pair of concussions) against the Broncos in 2014. The Chargers aren’t making an enormous commitment, as Addae’s four-year, $22 million deal contains $9 million in guarantees, but Addae won’t be able to continue developing if he’s unable to play.
Doyle was relatively anonymous in playing behind Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener before taking over for the departed Fleener in the starting lineup last season. He delivered a reasonable season for a tight end, catching 59 passes for 584 yards and five touchdowns. Doyle’s usage rate, though, is downright weird: Since entering the league, he has the highest catch rate of any wide receiver or tight end in football with at least 100 targets (79.7 percent), but Doyle has also been targeted with the shortest average pass over that same time frame, at 4.7 air yards per throw.
All of this is to say that Doyle seems relatively fungible, particularly in a year in which the draft is full of freak athletes at TE. The Colts have plenty of cap room, but they basically locked themselves into a middling second tight end for the next couple of seasons by guaranteeing Doyle $9.5 million as part of a three-year, $19 million deal. There are worse deals, but Indy paid a premium for a relatively low-ceiling player.
Doyle basically took over as the starting tight end in Indianapolis last season, which helps justify the premium he received, considering the relatively disappointing performance of Dwayne Allen. The same sort of logic seems to be in line with Davis, who signed a three-year, $15 million deal to stay in Washington after taking 63.3 percent of the offensive snaps last season. With Davis, Jordan Reed, Niles Paul and Derek Carrier, Washington will have as much committed to tight ends as anyone in football next season. That’s a little strange for a team that went with two or more tight ends on just 234 snaps last year, 22nd in the league in raw usage.
Davis was more effective as a downfield receiver than Doyle, catching 44 passes for 583 yards, but he recorded just a pair of scores in a frustrating year for Washington’s red zone offense. His 74.6 percent catch rate was the highest of his career and marked just the second time in 12 seasons he has posted a catch rate above 70 percent. His career catch rate heading into the season was below 62 percent, so 2016 looms as an outlier from that perspective.
The logic in re-signing Davis, who played last year on a one-year, $2.4 million deal, is somewhat tortured. Davis played that many snaps only because Washington’s starting tight end, Reed, missed four games. Reed continues to struggle with injuries, and it’s fair to consider this deal a sort of supplementary tax on Reed’s six-year, $48 million contract (which is really a two-year, $14.3 million deal with a bunch of options after this year) by paying a premium to hold onto a backup tight end who can block and approximate Reed’s athleticism.
Johnson refuses to leave Carolina, and the Panthers have used that leverage to sign him to team-friendly deals in each of the past two offseasons. Last year, Dave Gettleman cut Johnson to save $11 million in cap space before re-signing him on a one-year, $2.5 million bargain of a contract. After a relatively modest four-sack, 14-hit season, Johnson will stick around in Carolina for two years and $9.5 million.
As part of a rotation with Mario Addison, Wes Horton and Kony Ealy, Johnson should be able to return value on that price tag. This is a deep draft for edge rushers, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gettleman draft a defensive end, but he has brought back his edge players from a year ago without costing Carolina much at all. The Panthers also re-signed fringe contributors such as Fozzy Whittaker and Colin Jones, suggesting that Carolina sees its return to contention coming through the players who were already on its roster.