Welcome to 2019 NFL free agency. I’m grading the most notable offseason moves — signings and trades — below, so come back throughout the month for updates as deals are completed.
Keep in mind that I’m not grading deals until we get a clearer picture of the money involved. If you don’t see a grade for a deal that has been reported, check back later.
Jump to a big move:
Signings: WR Tate | S Thomas | RB Ingram | RB Bell
OLB Barr | OLB Fowler | ILB Mosley | S Mathieu
QB Foles | DE Flowers | OT Brown | DT Richardson
LB Alexander | S Weddle | DE Graham | OT Smith
Trades: OBJ to CLE | AB to OAK | Flacco to DEN
OAK-NYJ | PHI-NE | NYG-CLE | DEN-WSH
Saturday, April 6
The deal: Five years, $105 million
Given that Lawrence held most of the leverage in this negotiation, it’s not a surprise that the Boise State product was able to get a better deal than the likes of Trey Flowers and Dee Ford. Lawrence is the only one of the three to top an $18 million average annual salary, and he gets all the way to $21 million. Flowers and Ford weren’t on their second franchise tag, which meant that Lawrence was guaranteed $20.5 million on a one-year deal if he chose to sign the offer. Doing so would have left the Cowboys with the option of moving on from Lawrence in 2020 or signing him to a third franchise tag for $29.5 million.
Instead, the Cowboys will lock up Lawrence on a five-year pact. The deal reportedly has $65 million in guarantees, but I doubt those are full guarantees at signing. Dallas typically guarantees a large signing bonus and two years of base salaries to their star players in extensions. We know Lawrence will take home a $25 million signing bonus and a $6.5 million salary in Year 1, which means a total of at least $31.5 million in full guarantees at signing. Unless the Cowboys are paying Lawrence $33.5 million in Year 2, which seems extremely unlikely, Lawrence is likely looking at something closer to $47 million or so in full guarantees at signing.
The structure allows the Cowboys to keep his Year 1 cap figure relatively low. Lawrence will have a $11.5 million cap hit in 2019, which helps the Cowboys as they try to re-sign Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper and Byron Jones this offseason.
Monday, April 1
One of the lessons we’ve learned over the past year is that Browns general manager John Dorsey doesn’t like Sashi Brown draft picks. After trading Ogbah and cutting Ricardo Louis and Derrick Kindred over the weekend, the Browns are left with just three members of the deposed general manager’s 14-player class from the 2016 draft: middle linebacker Joe Schobert, backup wideout Rashard Higgins and tight end Seth DeValve.
It’s no surprise that Cleveland wanted to upgrade at defensive end from Ogbah, who wasn’t healthy or particularly productive as a starter over the past two seasons. After racking up 5.5 sacks and 16 knockdowns as a rookie, the Oklahoma State product generated just seven sacks and 13 knockdowns over 24 starts in 2017-18. After the Browns traded for Olivier Vernon, the writing was on the wall for an Ogbah deal.
At the same time, though, it seems weird that the Browns were so aggressive to move on from Ogbah. There’s a non-zero chance that he might have been more productive in a limited role as Cleveland’s third edge rusher, and it’s not as if the Browns are terribly deep at the position behind Vernon and Myles Garrett. Mid-career breakouts happen for guys who show signs of life on the edge — think about Nick Perry and Kyle Vanden Bosch as examples — and the Browns could have picked up a valuable compensatory pick next offseason if Ogbah pieced together an eight-sack season.
If they had come away with a greater return for Ogbah, I’d understand this deal more, but what they’re really getting in Murray is one year of a very good special-teamer. Murray was stretched under former coordinator Bob Sutton when asked to play regular snaps on defense, and if Browns fans are expecting Murray to step into the lineup as a replacement for Jabrill Peppers, they’re going to be disappointed. Murray’s $2 million salary after earning the proven performance bonus doesn’t make him a bargain if he plays strictly on special teams, either. He is a useful player to have on the back of a roster, but he doesn’t have the upside Ogbah offers.
In a vacuum, I like the Chiefs taking a shot on adding edge-rushing help by trading for Ogbah. Kansas City is relatively deep at safety, and while Murray was a valuable contributor on special teams, I have faith that special-teams coach Dave Toub will be able to mold another Murray out of a late-round pick at a fraction of the cost. I’m not sure Ogbah is going to be a useful edge rusher, but if he breaks out, this is a great deal for Chiefs GM Brett Veach.
When you look at the bigger picture (which isn’t included in the grade above), though, it’s hard to endorse what the Chiefs did on defense. They paid an exorbitant price to replace Eric Berry with Tyrann Mathieu. They’ve cut Justin Houston and traded Dee Ford, and while they picked up a 2020 second-rounder in the process, their edge-rushing committee includes Ogbah, Alex Okafor and former second-rounders Tanoh Kpassagnon and Breeland Speaks. It’s a cheaper bunch, but the Chiefs didn’t use the money they saved to upgrade elsewhere.
Given that Ford’s contract with the 49ers really amounts to a one-year, $19.8 million pact, it’s hard to argue that the Chiefs wouldn’t have been better off giving Ford the same deal and not signing Okafor. The Chiefs are in better cap shape and can roll this money over into next season, when they’ll need to re-sign the likes of Chris Jones, Tyreek Hill, and possibly Patrick Mahomes, but they’re not maximizing their window while Mahomes is making a fraction of his actual value.
Friday, March 29
We know the Eagles don’t like committing serious assets toward running backs, even if it means rotating players in and out of the role. You could argue that it’s a pointed reaction to the year in which Chip Kelly was general manager and signed DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, but Philly has cycled through guys such as LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi and been just fine.
Coach Doug Pederson basically played the hot hand after Ajayi went down last season, but that’s a generous interpretation of temperature; in 2018, Philly didn’t have a single back top 85 rushing yards or post a game with more than nine successful rushes by expected points added. The Eagles could have run things back in 2019 with the likes of Josh Adams and Wendell Smallwood as their primary ball carrier, but it seemed likely they would target a low-cost veteran to be in the mix.
Howard certainly doesn’t cost them much, given that he’ll make a little over $2 million in the final year of his rookie deal, and only that much because he hit proven performance escalators during his run with the Bears. The party line on Howard is that he wasn’t a great fit for Matt Nagy’s offense, but he was hardly a disaster last season. His 50 percent success rate ranked 17th in the league and was right in line with the 49 percent mark he posted during his Pro Bowl rookie campaign in 2016.
The 24-year-old averaged 5.2 yards per carry that season but only 3.7 yards per rush this past campaign. What was missing? Long runs. In 2016, Howard produced six runs of more than 25 yards, including carries for 69, 57, 36 and 31 yards. In 2018, he had one such carry, a 42-yarder. The 224-pound back isn’t exactly Tarik Cohen in the open field, but long runs tend to be random from year to year, so it wouldn’t be shocking if he broke big plays more frequently in 2019.
The Bears telegraphed their intentions with Howard by signing Mike Davis to a two-year, $6 million pact this offseason. Chicago will hope that Davis is a better receiver than Howard, which was the case in 2018, although Howard had been a more effective receiver in 2016 and 2017. Signing Davis could have cost the Bears a compensatory pick, but trading Howard gives them a shot at getting that pick back. I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather just hold onto Howard.
If Howard has a season more like his 2016 or 2017 campaigns, meanwhile, the Eagles could very well end up getting a compensatory pick back for Howard. Renting Howard for a year with the upside of getting a similar pick in return is a nice piece of business for GM Howie Roseman.
With Randy Gregory suspended and DeMarcus Lawrence negotiations not going well, the Cowboys needed to add some pass-rushing depth. In convincing Quinn to take a pay cut to a one-year, $8 million deal, they are adding the guy who has the most theoretical upside left on the market. We’re now five seasons removed from that 19-sack campaign that firmly placed Quinn on the map, but the former North Carolina star has averaged just under seven sacks over the ensuing five seasons.
Quinn gets a year to work with excellent Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who has coaxed effective seasons out of much less talented defensive linemen. If Quinn posts double-digit sacks, the Cowboys can net a meaningful comp pick in the 2021 draft. Ideally, the Cowboys will be able to rely on Taco Charlton and Lawrence on the edge and use Quinn as a rotation rusher, but Quinn could force the issue in what amounts to a contract year.
The Dolphins were reportedly willing to eat some of Quinn’s base salary to try to get a better draft pick via trade, a move they pulled as part of the Ryan Tannehill trade with the Titans. Given that they paid $5 million in that deal to come away with the difference between their sixth-round pick and Tennessee’s fourth- and seventh-round selections, I think the Dolphins are probably better off saving their cash.
Thursday, March 21
The deal: Two years, $24 million
It’s probably helpful to forget about the Justin Houston who racked up 22 sacks in 16 games back in 2014. That’s the last time he played 16 games in a season, and it came before he underwent a knee surgery in 2016 that wiped away most of that season. Over the two subsequent campaigns, Houston has 18.5 sacks and 32 knockdowns, with most of the latter coming in the 2017 season. The Georgia product has also missed five games over that span with injuries, which is one of the reasons the Chiefs weren’t comfortable paying him a $15.3 million base salary for 2019.
Former Chiefs executive Chris Ballard, now the GM in Indy, seems to have struck a good balance in bringing Houston to the Colts, assuming that this two-year deal is really a one-year contract in terms of guarantees. (Even a two-year, mostly guaranteed deal for the 30-year-old Houston doesn’t strike me as outlandish.) The Colts are building a rotation on the edge with Jabaal Sheard and 2018 second-rounders Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis, but the 258-pound Houston is the best pure pass-rusher of that bunch and is likely to figure as the lead portion of their pass-rush grouping. With Indy ranking 29th in adjusted sack rate last season, the Colts just addressed their biggest need.
The deal: One year, up to $5 million
It’s difficult to find reasons to endorse Burfict, who increasingly seems like he doesn’t belong on the football field as he poses a danger to opposing players, his own team and himself. Burfict’s résumé with dirty hits requires little introduction, but the guy who made the Pro Bowl in 2013 as a tackling machine isn’t around anymore. As ESPN’s Katherine Terrell noted in her story on Burfict, one former Bengals staff member suggested Cincinnati moved on from Burfict “five years too late.”
At this point, it’s difficult to expect any sort of regular work from Burfict. Injuries and suspensions have cost the former Arizona State star 37 games over the past five seasons. You can understand why former Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther might want to give his old charge another shot in Oakland, but the Raiders need to be finding long-term building blocks on defense. Even in the best-case scenario, Burfict is a stopgap whom the Raiders would have to weigh re-signing after an unexpectedly successful season.
The deal: Three years, $15.75 million
The Titans signed Kline off of the waiver wire after his time in New England, and after two seasons of Kline as a powerful run-blocker, Tennessee re-signed him to a four-year, $26.5 million deal. After paying him $7.25 million for 2018, the Titans were so disappointed by Kline that they chose to cut the 29-year-old, even though they had already guaranteed $2 million of his salary for 2019.
On one hand, I like the idea of the Vikings buying relatively low on him, given that the deal he signed a year ago was for a 26 percent larger annual salary, had an extra year and came when the cap was lower. My issue here is that the Titans didn’t like how Kline fit in an offense that was at its best running outside zone with Derrick Henry, and after hiring Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison to work underneath offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, it seems likely that the Vikings are about to build their rushing attack around the outside zone. Signing Kline also seems to point toward the Vikings running the football more frequently, and while that might please Mike Zimmer, giving Dalvin Cook touches at the expense of early-down throws to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs doesn’t excite me.
The deal: One year, $5 million
Cobb is nominally the replacement for Cole Beasley, who signed with the Bills after tweeting that the front office pushed the ball where it wanted it to go. One might argue that throwing to Dez Bryant and later Amari Cooper could be construed as more appealing for Dak Prescott, but it’s fair to suggest that Beasley felt like there were opportunities to make plays in the slot.
In adding Cobb, though, the Cowboys are signing a receiver who hasn’t made many plays over the past few seasons. When the Packers signed Cobb to a four-year, $40 million deal in March of 2015, the Kentucky product was coming off of a 1,287-yard, 12-touchdown season. He had averaged 13.4 yards per reception and increased his receiving yards per game in each of his first four seasons, all the way up to 80.4 yards per game in 2014.
Since then … it hasn’t been great. Cobb has averaged 619 yards and four touchdowns per season while racking up just 10.2 yards per catch. His receiving yards per game immediately cratered to 51.8 yards per contest and continued to fall in each of the three ensuing seasons. Seventy-five of his 383 receiving yards last season came on the game-winning touchdown pass Cobb caught from Aaron Rodgers in the opener; he failed to top 45 yards in any single contest the rest of the way.
The Cowboys didn’t have to make a significant commitment to Cobb, which is good in a market in which slot receivers were pushing $9 million per season. I’m not sure there’s a great fit here, though, because the best place for Cooper to operate might be out of the slot. The Cowboys could use Cobb on jet sweeps and as an occasional halfback, but I’m not sure he has those jets anymore, and Dallas also re-signed Tavon Austin to a one-year deal. With Michael Gallup ascending and Jason Witten unretiring and likely demanding a higher target share than Dallas’ tight ends did a year ago, Cobb’s role from game to game is likely to be inconsistent.
Monday, March 18
The deal: One year, $4 million
Washington’s streak of upsetting Giants fans by signing away Jerry Reese draft picks ended with Landon Collins at one. Flowers has shown little aptitude for the sport, doesn’t appear to do much in the way of research, and responded to criticism by shoving a media member. The Giants finally gave up on the former top-10 pick after three-plus seasons and cut Flowers, who went to the Jaguars and filled in at tackle during the second half of last season. The Jaguars cut starting right tackle Jermey Parnell and didn’t retain Flowers, which is telling if you want to pretend he impressed with a fresh start in Florida. You don’t necessarily need a great work ethic to succeed at the offensive line if you’re a freak athlete, as Bryant McKinnie’s career showed, but you have to be good at football.
Flowers’ new organization intends to move him to guard, a position he has never played (to my knowledge). That’s hardly ideal. The soon-to-be-25-year-old will get a great offensive line coach in Bill Callahan, but justifying this deal by pointing solely to the coach to turn around a player who hasn’t ever been good at his job doesn’t make sense. Callahan would make everyone better.
Perhaps worst of all, Washington is committing $4 million for the privilege of trying a consistently replacement-level player at a new position on a one-year deal. By not securing a second- or third-year option on the Miami product, even if Callahan pulls a miracle and manages to coax competency out of Flowers at guard, Washington will just see its new charge hit free agency in 2020. This is a remarkably low-floor, low-ceiling move, and Washington is paying millions for a player who shouldn’t justify more than the minimum as a reclamation project.
Sunday, March 17
The deal: Two years, $12 million
After failing to replace Ryan Shazier last season and allowing the second-worst DVOA in football to tight ends, the Steelers finally made a move to upgrade at inside linebacker by importing the former Rams defender. This two-year deal is likely for one guaranteed season with an option, which gives the Steelers some flexibility regardless of how Barron plays in year one. Since the Rams cut him, the signing doesn’t impact the third-round pick the Steelers are currently expecting to receive for Le’Veon Bell.
My concern is simply that Barron hasn’t been a good coverage linebacker in years past. The former safety is a fun blitzer and big hitter, and there’s a way he could figure in the defense with that role, but the Steelers need someone with both the athleticism and the coverage ability to hold up when they come up against the likes of Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski. Barron has shown far more of the former than the latter.
The deal: Two years, $11 million
The Dolphins have mostly settled for unoffensively middling quarterback play since Dan Marino retired. Fitzpatrick is no centrist passer. The Harvard product is capable of looking like he would blow out the Patriots and then incapable of completing a pass against Yale, occasionally within the same game. Over the past decade, only one quarterback has more games with three or more interceptions than “FitzMagic” (15). And that’s despite the fact that Fitzpatrick wasn’t his team’s regular starter in several of those seasons.
The Dolphins have basically given Fitzpatrick a two-year deal at reasonable backup money with incentives for more if they start him for any length of time. Considering that he’s a 36-year-old with an injury history and a habit of selling out for first downs while scrambling in Septembers for bad football teams, it’s tough to see him staying healthy for 16 games in Miami. Given that Conor McGregor was just arrested in Miami, though, the arrival of Fitzpatrick gives the UFC star a useful doppelgänger in South Beach.
Friday, March 15
The deal: One year, $8.5 million
Arguably the top cornerback available on the market, Darby’s two-year run with the Eagles has been uneven, thanks mostly to injuries. The former Bills second-round pick suffered a dislocated ankle in his first game with the team and missed the first half of the 2017 season, then went down with a torn ACL in Philly’s 27-20 loss to the Cowboys and missed the second half of the 2018 season. Darby has played just 17 games over two seasons, and while Eagles fans will have positive memories of Darby matching up against Julio Jones near the goal line in that playoff win against the Falcons, he has been a liability for stretches of his run.
The Eagles have generally been cheap with their cornerback decisions, which is why a one-year, $8.5 million contract doesn’t seem to solve any matter. It’s not cheap, especially for a player coming off an ACL tear. It’s a one-year deal, so even if Darby does have a Pro Bowl-caliber season, he can go somewhere else in 2020. And given the injury concerns, the Eagles will lose more if he gets hurt this year as opposed to when he was making less than a million dollars this past season.
Darby still has breakout potential, and the 25-year-old could suddenly morph into a shutdown corner, but in a division with Eli Manning and Colt McCoy as two of the three other quarterbacks, the Eagles might have been smart to play it cheap at corner in the first place.
If you have aspirations of playing quarterback in the NFL, now might be a good time to get to Miami. Days after the Dolphins missed out on signing free agent Teddy Bridgewater to presumably replace Tannehill, Miami decided to respond by getting rid of its starting signal-caller anyway. Tannehill’s seven-year run as Dolphins QB1 ended with Friday’s trade, as he’ll now become the backup to Marcus Mariota in Tennessee.
This is a very similar swap to the Case Keenum trade from earlier this offseason. Like Keenum, Tannehill was on an untenable base salary ($18.7 million) which held no trade value. The Dolphins would have been forced to cut Tannehill, but to facilitate a deal, he was willing to take a pay cut down to a $7 million base salary with incentives. The Broncos were forced to chip in $3.5 million of base salary for Keenum because they owed him guaranteed money, but while the Dolphins didn’t owe Tannehill any more money, they paid $5 million of the $7 million in what likely amounted to buying a better draft pick.
Tannehill saw the writing on the wall and took the sort of pay cut he would have been forced to make in free agency anyway, but in doing so, he got to ensure he would be in a promising situation. The Titans have been playoff contenders or participants three years running, and they might have made it into January with a better backup last season.
After seeing Blaine Gabbert implode during the Week 17 play-in loss to the Colts, the Titans couldn’t let him return as Mariota’s backup for 2019. Tennessee should have prioritized the backup position earlier, of course, given how frequently Mariota gets injured. Tannehill was never stunning as Miami’s starter, and he has his own ugly injury history, but his mobility and comfort booting off play-action make him a good fit for what this Titans scheme is likely to look like under Arthur Smith, the team’s latest offensive coordinator.
There might even be a bit of a quarterback controversy if Mariota gets hurt and Tannehill plays well in the starter’s absence. Over the past four seasons, Tannehill has posted a 91.1 passer rating to Mariota’s 89.4 mark. Mariota’s Total QBR is much better, owing in part to his superiority as a runner, but both Mariota and Tannehill are in the final years of their respective deals. The Titans organization is making this move for its own peace of mind, not Mariota’s.
I would grade this higher for Tennessee’s side if the Titans had managed to swap late-round picks and paid the extra cash for Tannehill’s base salary. The Dolphins had no leverage here; because Tannehill needed to take a pay cut to make any sort of trade palatable, the former first-round pick essentially had a no-trade clause. Given that there weren’t any starting jobs out there, it’s hard to imagine that he would have preferred any situation to the one behind Mariota in Tennessee.
From the Dolphins’ side, it seems clear they’re going to make a move for a quarterback this offseason, given that the only passers left on their roster are Jake Rudock and Luke Falk. They struck out on Bridgewater, and while there were rumors linking the Dolphins to Kyler Murray in the beginning of the draft process, the Heisman Trophy winner’s meteoric rise up the charts means he might come off the board to the Cardinals at pick No. 1.
Independent of the Dolphins’ landing Murray, Dwayne Haskins or another young quarterback in the draft, Miami probably needs to add at least one competent veteran for 2019. It’s slim pickings in the free-agent market; the most plausible addition is Floridian Blake Bortles, who was cut by the Jaguars this week.
I don’t need to tell you Bortles has warts, and the Dolphins wouldn’t make a long-term commitment to the former third overall pick, but it’s at least worth remembering that Bortles threw for four touchdowns in Week 2 against the Patriots, who were coordinated by new Dolphins coach Brian Flores. You can understand why the Dolphins would have preferred Bridgewater, but unless they want to bring back Brock Osweiler or take a flyer on AJ McCarron or Sam Bradford, Bortles is actually the best option available.
The deal: One year, $3.5 million
In the game of free safety musical chairs, the odd man out was Clinton-Dix, who neither Green Bay nor Washington seemed particularly impressed with during an uneven 2018 season. I suspect Clinton-Dix could have found a multiyear deal on the market if he really wanted one, but when he saw what guys like Landon Collins and Tyrann Mathieu were getting in free agency, you might imagine the idea of putting a better year on tape before heading back into free agency in 2020 would be appealing.
It’s difficult to think of a better landing spot than Chicago, where the Bears will be able to surround him with one of the best defenses in football. New defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano and Clinton-Dix could take the blame if an otherwise-returning Bears defense declines in 2019 when the real causes are more likely to be regression toward the mean in terms of takeaway rates and health, but that’s no reason not to make this signing. The Bears might still want to draft a safety to play in 2020, since they won’t likely have the space to re-sign Clinton-Dix if he returns to form, but this is about as team-friendly of a deal as you’ll see for a young player with Pro Bowl upside.
The deal: Three years, $24 million
Okafor is a useful defensive end. He hasn’t quite achieved the heights of his eight-sack campaign with the Cardinals in 2014, but the Texas product can be a useful contributor as a rotation end. The Saints traded up to grab Marcus Davenport after Okafor tore his Achilles in November of 2017, but the veteran held onto his starting job for all 16 games.
The Chiefs are paying Okafor $8 million per year in a year in which the draft is full of edge rushers for a player who hasn’t moved the needle as a pro. It feels like Kansas City either needed to be more ambitious as its tries to replace Dee Ford and Justin Houston and go after a star, or go cheaper and try to just flood its roster with depth. Okafor is somewhere in the middle.
The deal: One year, $3.5 million
Through the end of 2017, it looked like Poole was a candidate for an extension with the Falcons. In 2018, things went so far south that the Falcons decided against even tendering their nickel corner as a restricted free agent when an original-rounder tender would have only cost $2 million. The Jets found Poole to be worth something more and gave the 26-year-old a one-year deal for nearly twice that figure. When nickel corners like Justin Coleman are going for $9 million per season in free agency, I’d rather take my chances with Poole and hope that 2018 was just a poor season.
Thursday, March 14
The deal: One year, $7.25 million fully guaranteed with $5 million in incentives
Bridgewater wants to play quarterback. Over the past three seasons, he has thrown 25 regular-season passes while recovering from the catastrophic knee injury that cost him his starting job in Minnesota. The former Louisville star signed with the Jets last offseason, was waylaid when they drafted Sam Darnold, and then impressed enough in preseason to get sent to the Saints, where he sat behind Drew Brees all season short a Week 17 start.
At the moment, there is technically one starting job open, and it’s with the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins haven’t officially cut Ryan Tannehill, and they might keep him around given that nobody seems to want their quarterback spot, but if Bridgewater wanted the No. 1 job in Miami, it could have been his. It’s possible he was afraid that the Dolphins were going to sign him and then draft a quarterback, which would have meant a lame-duck job.
You might argue that a lame-duck spot in Miami is better than sitting behind Brees in New Orleans, but there’s something interesting to look at when you check out how Brees performed in 2018 …
From the prime-time loss to the Cowboys on, Brees went from playing like a MVP to playing like a McCown. Brees was poor in the playoffs, missing open receivers and even at times struggling to pull the trigger on his successful throws.
Could it just be randomness over what amounts to a six-game sample? Of course. Would I worry about a middling end to the season if Brees was 28? Not at all. He’s 40, though, and when great quarterbacks get to this point of their careers, they don’t often decline gradually. They’re incredible for a long time and they suddenly lose it without regaining their old form.
Peyton Manning, as an example, posted a 107.8 passer rating with 36 touchdowns and nine picks through the first 12 games of 2014. Over the next month, he posted a passer rating of 76.8, with three touchdowns against six picks, then posted a 75.5 rating in a playoff loss to the Colts. Manning was a replacement-level passer the following season, and while the Broncos won the Super Bowl, he was benched for Brock Osweiler along the way and was a passenger even after he returned to the lineup.
I’m not saying Brees is done. (I’m tempted to shout that louder for posterity’s sake.) I’ll believe Brees is done if I see him play that way for another six or eight games to start 2019. What I would say, though, is that there’s at least something to be worried about with Brees’ play for the first time in years. The chances that he’s not going to play like the Hall of Famer we all know are higher in 2019 than they were in 2018 or 2017. And if you’re the Saints, well, you might be willing to pay a premium to make sure that you have a starting-caliber backup to fill in if Brees isn’t his usual self.
The other interesting thing here is that the Saints have Bridgewater signed to only a one-year deal, so if Brees returns to form and stays healthy, Bridgewater will just collect his $7.5 million and head to free agency again next year, with another year of his prime spent on the sidelines. I’m surprised both sides couldn’t come to terms on a longer-term deal, perhaps one that would void if Bridgewater hit certain escalators. The Saints might view Bridgewater as their long-term replacement for Brees, but right now, he’s back to biding his time.
The deal: Four years, $37 million with $23.5 million guaranteed
Do you remember “Memento,” the movie in which Guy Pearce’s short-term memory was destroyed and he lost the ability to remember anything in the recent past? Is it possible the Giants are struggling with the same condition? Days after trading Odell Beckham Jr. to signal that they were going to build around Saquon Barkley and the running game, the Giants reversed course and gave Tate a four-year deal with $23.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.
It’s bizarre for many reasons. To start, while the franchise buried Beckham on his way out of town and called him a distraction, the Giants responded by signing a wideout who was cited while with the Seahawks for breaking into a doughnut store and who reportedly got into a fistfight with Percy Harvin the week before the Super Bowl. (To be clear, I don’t think those are actual character concerns, but they’re more meaningful than, say, getting into a fight with a kicking net or simulating urination during a touchdown celebration.)
Tate is a strange fit for a team in the middle of a rebuild, even if the Giants want to pretend otherwise. He’s a tough receiver and a willing blocker, but his best spot in the lineup is in the slot, where he caught 150 passes from 2015-17. That was the sixth-highest total in the NFL over that time frame. The Giants already have a slot receiver in Sterling Shepard, who is far cheaper than Tate; the Oklahoma product has 149 receptions in the slot over his first three seasons in the league, which is third in the NFL. We already saw what happened last season in Philadelphia when the Eagles traded for Tate and were stuck trying to fit Tate, Nelson Agholor, Jordan Matthews, and Zach Ertz in the slot for targets. Tate got lost in the shuffle.
Furthermore, Tate turns 31 in August. He’s smart enough to get by without every ounce of athleticism, but the Giants guaranteed him enough money to make this a very expensive two-year deal or a reasonably expensive three-year pact. The Giants are blindly backing Eli Manning, who will receive a $5 million bonus Saturday, for 2019; even if we assume that they’ll have a new quarterback in 2020, Tate is not going to be a long-term solution for a team that needs to be looking for long-term solutions right now. General manager Dave Gettleman is papering over the holes in this offense with trades and free-agent signings, just as Jerry Reese did with the defense years ago.
In addition, by signing Tate, the Giants are going to lose the fifth-round compensatory pick they got when the Falcons signed Jamon Brown. (A previous version of this section incorrectly stated that they would lose the third-round pick they’ll receive for Landon Collins.) They need to be targeting young talent and draft picks to build around Barkley. While Tate is a talented player, this isn’t the right move for Big Blue.
The deal: One year, $3.6 million
Everyone wants to see Verrett succeed, and with good reason. The TCU product impressed as a rookie and made the Pro Bowl in 2015, but injuries have ground his career to a halt. In 2014, he tore his labrum and missed 10 games. In 2015, he missed two games with foot and groin ailments. In 2016, he tore his ACL after four games, and knee pain limited him to one game in 2017 before he underwent another surgery. Last year, Verrett tore his Achilles during the Chargers’ conditioning test. He missed 43 of the Chargers’ past 48 games.
I’m surprised the 49ers would look toward the 5-foot-10 Verrett, if only because they tend to prefer taller cornerbacks, although K’Waun Williams is 5-foot-9. This is obviously a lottery ticket on a player who is years removed from playing regular football, although it’s an expensive one given the circumstances. If this is a one-year deal for less money with a maximum of $3.6 million, it would make more sense, but if the 49ers are paying $3.6 million, they should have been able to get a second year in the case that Verrett does stay healthy. It’s a high-upside move by the Niners.
The deal: Two years, $8 million
Left with nowhere to turn after Derrius Guice went down with a torn ACL over the summer, Washington signed Peterson off the street and got totally reasonable production. The 33-year-old finished 28th in Success Rate and fumbled only three times on 271 touches, which had been a huge problem for the future Hall of Famer; since his 15-game sabbatical in 2014, Peterson had fumbled 11 times on just 564 touches.
Peterson has earned another job, and he’s not a terrible fit for Washington’s scheme. At the same time, though, what are we really doing here? Guice is back, and Washington used a second-round pick on him in the 2018 draft, suggesting it saw the LSU standout as a likely starter. Washington’s starting quarterbacks are Case Keenum and Colt McCoy. The team is probably not going anywhere.
Isn’t this time to go see if you can develop your next young running back? Peterson has gotten cranky when he hasn’t been getting regular carries in years past, and he doesn’t offer much value as a receiver or play special teams. The best-case scenario is that we get another 2018 season out of him, but even if that happens, it doesn’t move the needle for this team.
The deal: One year, up to $6 million
Williams is coming off of a serious knee injury that cost the 26-year-old virtually the entire 2018 season, but he was a second-team All-Pro in 2017. Given the thirst for useful tackles gripping most NFL teams these days and the presence of former Panthers executives with subpar offensive lines in Buffalo and New York, I figured he would have a nice market and end up getting a multiyear deal, even with the knee injury.
Instead, Williams will be going back to Carolina on a one-year deal that maxes out around $6 million. You can understand why he would want to bet on himself and try to hit the market after a healthy season, since he probably would be looking at a four-year deal in the $52 million range if he were healthy.
It’s an easy victory for the Panthers, whose offensive line concerns look a lot better after re-signing Williams and adding Matt Paradis. This move likely displaces Taylor Moton, who impressed in his first season as a starter while filling in for Williams at right tackle. Where Moton goes next will be telling.
Then-GM Dave Gettleman made a huge mistake two years ago in signing left tackle Matt Kalil to a five-year, $55.5 million deal that was unsupported by tape, statistics or medicine. Kalil’s $7 million base salary guarantees on Friday, and while you might think the Panthers would cut the former Vikings draftee, they also would owe $14.7 million in dead money on their 2019 cap if they did so. Oops.
If they keep Kalil, you would figure that the Panthers will give him one more shot at left tackle after he missed the entirety of the 2018 season. Moton would likely kick inside to play left guard, which would push Greg Van Roten into a reserve role. I think their best five-man line, though, is probably with Moton at left tackle, Van Roten at guard, and Kalil on the bench. It will be interesting to see if Carolina feels the same way.
UPDATE: As part of the trade for Jackson, the Eagles restructured his deal and paid him a $3 million bonus while handing him a three-year, $27 million contract. Jackson was set to have a $10 million base salary in 2019, but this deal should lower his cap hit, which will help Philadelphia if it wants to add a veteran or two on defense.
Even after trading for Jackson, the Eagles interestingly decided to hold onto Nelson Agholor, whose $9.4 million base salary is now guaranteed. Agholor might have a small amount of trade value, but it looks like the Eagles will move forward with Agholor, Jackson and Alshon Jeffery as their three wideouts in 2019. Philly will likely have more than $30 million in cap space devoted to their three receivers, which is a lot for a team whose best formation in 2019 might be with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert on the field together. Strictly looking at the Jackson deal, though, this is a good move for the Eagles.
Original write-up: Four-plus years after being ignominiously released by the Eagles in May 2014, Jackson’s returning home to Philly. By trading for the player on whom they once used a second-round pick, the Eagles fill a hole they’ve struggled to nail down since Carson Wentz arrived in town in 2016. While Wentz ranks eighth in Total QBR since the start of 2016 on throws within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage, the fourth-year passer is 22nd in the same category on throws 16-plus yards downfield. The Eagles have tried to create downfield opportunities by adding options such as Torrey Smith and Mike Wallace, and Mack Hollins showed some promise during his rookie campaign before getting hurt last year, but none of them can compare to Jackson as a deep weapon.
The on-field fit is perfect. With Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz and Jackson, the Eagles have a classic X-Y-Z receiving corps. There isn’t the overlap in skill set and desired role there was last season with Ertz, Golden Tate and Nelson Agholor. There also doesn’t appear to be a long-term investment, given that Jackson was entering the final year of his deal at $10 million. Chris Mortensen tweeted that Jackson would take home $13 million in 2019 as part of a restructure, but it’s unclear whether the Eagles added more years to the deal to lower the cap hit in 2019 or simply gave Jackson a raise to stay out of free agency.
The big concerns for Jackson are age and injury, but one seems more worrisome than the other. Jackson led the league with 18.9 yards per reception last season, marking the fourth time in 11 years that the 32-year-old managed to pull off that feat. Jackson’s average pass attempt traveled 19.1 yards in the air, which was the highest figure in the league by 2.5 yards for someone with 50 targets or more. He still stretches the field just fine. Unless he falls off a cliff during the offseason, Jackson should be a vertical threat for the Eagles in 2019.
Injuries seem like a bigger cause for worry. Jackson hasn’t completed a 16-game season since he left Philadelphia, as he has missed 14 games the past five seasons with various ailments. There’s no single body part ailing Jackson, either — he has missed time with everything from shoulder and hamstring issues to a thumb injury, which cost the former Cal star multiple weeks last season. If Jackson’s price tag for 2019 is $13 million, he needs to stay healthy to return excess value on that deal.
I’m not really enthused by this move for the Bucs, who just hired a head coach who loves to throw the ball downfield, in Bruce Arians. If you’re gonna play “no risk it, no biscuit” offense, who represents a better fit than DeSean Jackson? The Bucs desperately tried to manufacture a trade market for Jackson and failed before basically trading him for the smallest possible compensation. They’ll move forward with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin as their top two wideouts, though I still think they could look to make a move for former Arians pupil John Brown as their deep threat.
The deal: Four years, $54 million with $27 million semi-guaranteed
UPDATE: This is similar to the Jerick McKinnon contract from last season, where it’s really a one-year pact with options. The 49ers will pay Alexander $14.5 million for the 2019 season, which is still way too much given that the franchise tag for linebackers is $15.5 million and that’s mostly based on pass-rushers. After that, the 49ers can go year to year with cap figures of $13.1 million, $14.4 million and $14.5 million.
Original write-up: The 49ers have a habit of making signings like this under general manager John Lynch. They fall in love with a player and pay him like the player they imagine him being as opposed to the player the rest of the market is negotiating against. These moves generally don’t work out. In 2017, it was Malcolm Smith and Kyle Juszczyk. Last year, it was Jerick McKinnon, who missed all of his debut season with the team because of a torn ACL.
The closest example of this for the 49ers in the draft was with now-departed inside linebacker Reuben Foster. After the 2017 draft, when the Niners traded down one spot with the Bears and drafted pass-rusher Solomon Thomas, Lynch traded back into the bottom of the first round to draft Foster. Afterward, Lynch suggested that Foster was the third-highest player on their draft board and that if the Bears had taken Thomas with the second overall pick, he would have chosen Foster third.
In the end, the rest of the league let Foster fall to 31, where the 49ers grabbed him for an ill-fated run at inside linebacker. The Niners cut Foster in November after multiple incidents of domestic abuse, and while the 49ers had some success with Fred Warner in the middle last season, it’s not a surprise that they wanted to go after a long-term solution at middle linebacker this offseason.
For a linebacker with one Pro Bowl appearance (as an injury replacement) coming off a torn ACL, though, this price tag has to be considered exorbitant. Alexander now has the largest annual average salary for any off-ball linebacker in the league at $13.5 million, although C.J. Mosley will likely top that figure when he signs a free-agent deal later this week. It’s difficult to believe the 49ers couldn’t have found similar production at a much cheaper cost, especially as veterans such as Zach Brown and Brandon Marshall are expected to hit the market.
It’s tough to judge Alexander’s production in Tampa, in part because the defense around him was so bad. He missed 18 games over his four seasons with injuries and a four-game PED suspension, and while that’s not ideal, it gives us a reasonable sample to see how the Bucs’ defense performed with and without him on the field.
The Bucs were unquestionably better with Alexander around, but they weren’t great in any scenario. Tampa’s run defense allowed 4.3 yards per carry and first downs on 25.3 percent of rushing attempts without Alexander on the field. With him around, the Bucs gave up 4.1 yards per carry and allowed 24.1 percent of rushing attempts to turn into first downs. The league averages over that time frame were for 4.2 yards per carry and a 22.5 percent first-down rate on running plays.
Alexander was similarly helpful against the pass, although again, it wasn’t enough to push Tampa into competency. The Bucs allowed a 108.3 passer rating and a 75.5 Total QBR with Alexander off the field, which is like turning every opposing offense into Drew Brees. With Alexander, their numbers were still not great, but certainly better: Tampa gave up a passer rating of 95.3 and a Total QBR of 62.9 with him on the field.
The evidence suggests Alexander is a good linebacker. The 49ers are paying him like he’s a threat to be a first-team All-Pro linebacker every season, and that just isn’t borne out by Alexander’s career. A torn ACL is hardly a death knell for careers in the modern NFL, but it wouldn’t be shocking if he got off to a slow start next season, given that he tore up his knee in October. The 49ers will likely have a team-friendly structure on this deal, and I suspect that Alexander’s $27 million in guarantees aren’t fully locked in at the time he signs his deal, but this deal is solving a problem most teams address for far less.
Wednesday, March 13
The deal: Two years, $10 million
This is a good price for the 49ers, given that Coleman was probably expecting a longer contract with more than $10 million in guarantees when the free-agent period started. San Francisco was also reportedly in with a serious bid on Le’Veon Bell, but the former Steelers back chose to join the Jets instead.
I still think the 49ers could have gotten by just fine with Matt Breida and a draft pick at halfback, but they continue to invest in running backs with pass-catching ability in free agency. Last year’s Jerick McKinnon deal saw the 49ers pay $12 million in one year for a back who had been one of the worst runners in football the previous two seasons. This signing is far more palatable, especially if it’s a guarantee in the $5-6 million range.
Will the 49ers carry Coleman, McKinnon and Breida? I’m skeptical, in part because the 49ers almost surely would have cut McKinnon if they had signed Bell. Most teams want their third back to play special teams, which could be insightful. Coleman doesn’t play special teams, but he’s guaranteed a roster spot this season. McKinnon wasn’t a regular special-teamer in Minnesota, as he suited up regularly in 2015 and was there occasionally in 2017 but didn’t play in 2016. Breida suited up on special teams in 2017 for the 49ers but mostly sat them out in 2018, as he started at halfback and played through an ankle injury. The 49ers wouldn’t realize any cap savings from cutting McKinnon, but they would save $3.7 million in cash. Breida will make $645,000 in the third year of his rookie deals, and I suspect he would have some trade market if the 49ers want to keep Coleman and McKinnon.
The deal: Four years, $44 million, $22 million guaranteed
Williams looked to be the top wideout on the market heading into free agency, but in a market in which teams seemed desperate to add talent, the slot receivers came off the board first. It looked like Williams might head east for one of the rookie quarterbacks, but in the end, he stays in California for one more season by signing a four-year deal with the Raiders.
Bill Barnwell and Field Yates explain how Trent Brown won and Daryl Williams lost in free agency.
Derek Carr won’t be able to say the Raiders haven’t rebuilt his receiving corps. After heading into the offseason with Jordy Nelson and Marcell Ateman as his wideouts, Carr will be able to boast an above-average deep threat in Williams and an all-around star in Antonio Brown. Nelson should move into the slot as the third wideout, though there’s a chance the Raiders move on from the 33-year-old former Packers star after an indifferent first season in Oakland.
Williams might get a slight upgrade in going from Philip Rivers to Carr. Over the past four seasons, Carr has a better QBR, passer rating and completion percentage on passes 16 or more yards downfield than his divisional rival. The Raiders don’t appear very interested in re-signing Jared Cook, but they’re a tight end away from an imposing receiving corps.
The deal: Four years, $15-16 million
Myers spent two-plus years as the Jaguars’ kicker between 2015 and 2017 and hit on 81.0 percent of his field goals. The Seahawks had Myers in camp last summer and cut him in favor of Sebastian Janikowski, who was inconsistent in his first season outside of Oakland. Myers caught on with the Jets and produced a career season, hitting 33 of his 36 field goal tries.
The chances are far greater that Myers’s true field goal rate is closer to his career average of 84.3 percent than his 2018 rate of 91.7 percent, and if the former is accurate, then Myers isn’t worth this sort of commitment.
The deal: Two years, $10 million
I’m intrigued by the fit here, given all that Bill Belichick managed to get out of Patterson last season. On offense, I think Patterson is more of a backup at multiple positions than anything else. He isn’t going to start ahead of Tarik Cohen or Mike Davis at halfback or for Taylor Gabriel at wideout. But he could see 10-15 snaps across those positions per game when everyone’s healthy and fill in when someone goes down.
Patterson’s also an excellent return man, and while Cohen was a very good punt returner last season, Patterson should step in as Chicago’s primary kick returner. This is a lot to pay for a player who unquestionably got the Belichick Bump last season, but I would imagine that Matt Nagy will be able to carve out some semblance of an offensive role from week to week for Patterson
The deal: Three years, $25.5 million
Do you remember watching the Chiefs on defense the past couple of seasons and remarking that one of their cornerbacks not named Marcus Peters was worth more than $8 million per season? The Steelers thought otherwise, and while they have a desperate need for help at cornerback across from Joe Haden, paying Nelson this sort of money leaves the Steelers with hope as opposed to a solution.
Nelson was Kansas City’s best cornerback in 2018, and you might argue that Bob Sutton didn’t do a great job of developing his young talent, but Nelson isn’t the sort of cornerback whom I’d be comfortable paying this much money. Nelson was a weird fit with the Chiefs, given his 5-foot-11, 194-pound frame and Kansas City’s propensity for man coverage under Sutton. The Steelers will have to hope that the 26-year-old is better when given the chance to play zone more frequently.
With Nelson, Haden and slot corner Mike Hilton all under contract, it looks like the Steelers are giving up on Artie Burns for the foreseeable future. The 2016 first-round pick was being pegged for stardom as recently as last offseason, and the Steelers might have to consider trading Burns while he still has some value as a reclamation project. This deal also cancels out the comp pick the Steelers were going to earn for Jesse James, though it’s not a big enough contract to wipe away the pick Pittsburgh should get for Le’Veon Bell.
The deal: Three years, $25 million with $12 million guaranteed
The Colts are retaining one of the biggest breakouts from their impressive season, and they’re doing so at a relatively modest price. Desir struggled in Cleveland and bounced around the league before ending up in Indy, but his size and ability to play the sideline in Indy’s Cover-2 last season made the Lindenwood product a valuable corner. At 28, he should still have plenty of football left to go.
You might compare this deal to Justin Coleman‘s contract in Detroit, given that Coleman also bounced around the league before finding a home. Coleman has two years of above-average play to Desir’s one, and he’s three years younger. Those are advantages. Coleman also seems likely limited to the slot, while Desir can play outside, which is generally a more valuable deal. Desir’s deal also guarantees him $12 million, whereas Coleman’s contract has $18 million in practical guarantees through two seasons.
The deal: Three years, $25.2 million
The Jets were excited to bring back Anderson, who has flashed with stretches of great play during his career and racked up seven sacks on 668 defensive snaps during his first season in New York. The former Colts draftee also produced 16 knockdowns last season, so there’s nothing particularly fluky about that sack total. I’m not sure I would call him a great pure pass-rusher from watching him on tape, but the 6-foot-6 Stanford product has a good motor. Most of his sacks were second efforts or came on plays where he recognized that a quarterback was about to try to leave the pocket.
The worry with Anderson has been health, as 2018’s 16-game season marked the first time Anderson has been able to make it past 11 games in a campaign. He suffered a torn ACL in 2015, and while he made it back for 2016, he struggled with the injury and was never 100 percent. In 2017, Anderson went down in midseason with a fractured larynx, which is about as freakish as freak injuries get. The Jets might run the risk of paying for an outlier season of health, but I like his fit as a 3-4 end in New York.
The deal: Three years, $23 million with $10 million guaranteed
In the absence of a Patriots player to sign, the Titans instead opted for someone who has gone up against the Patriots for a decade. The seemingly ageless Wake left the Dolphins amid their rebuilding project, and while I thought he might look for a perennial playoff contender to join on a one-year deal, he will end up joining a Tennessee team which came one win away from back-to-back playoff appearances.
Because Wake spent years in the CFL before making his move to Miami, he’s older than might you think; the Penn State product turned 37 in January. It seemed reasonable to count him out after he tore his Achilles in 2015, but Wake responded with a Pro Bowl 11.5-sack season in 2016 and a 10.5-sack season the following season.
Was 2018 the year Wake finally slowed down? Early on, it seemed likely, given that the onetime BC Lions star racked up just one sack and three quarterback hits in his first four games before missing two weeks with a knee scope. He wasn’t his usual self in his first two games back, but over the final half of the year, Classic Wake returned. The five-time Pro Bowler generated five sacks and 14 knockdowns over the final eight games of the season, with the latter figure ranking 14th in the NFL.
I’m not sure we can count on the second-half version of Wake showing up, although it’s also fair to say he’s defied expectations before. In a draft full of edge rushing talent, too, I think I’d rather see the Titans go after a linebacker in the first round to play across from Harold Landry and go after more of a rotational rusher in reserve. It would be a better deal if the guarantee was more in the $6-7 million range.
The deal: Four years, $55 million with $32 million fully guaranteed
Well, if the Ravens wanted to help fans get over the losses of Eric Weddle and C.J. Mosley, this is a step in the right direction. Baltimore is replacing a very good veteran safety with arguably the best safety of his generation in Thomas, who is likely to end up in Canton one day. It’s not quite as sure of a bet as it once was when Thomas was a perennial first-team All-Pro pick from 2012-14, but Thomas has been a game-changer when healthy.
Over the past three seasons, even as his influence has conceivably waned because of injuries, the Seahawks have been a much better defense with their star safety on the field:
That interception split is stunning. Thomas is a ball hawk — the Texas product had three in what amounts to three-plus games last season before breaking his leg in Week 4 — but his presence in the deep middle of the field also allowed his teammates to be more aggressive attacking underneath routes, knowing that they had a monster lurking over the top.
If the Ravens get the healthy Thomas of old, this is an easy win. There’s no guarantee Thomas will be that guy over the length of this deal. He turns 30 in May and is coming off two different broken legs in the past three seasons. The Seahawks clearly didn’t think he was going to age well, which was one of the reasons they didn’t re-sign him.
This is also a big investment when you see the guaranteed figure. Almost 60 percent (58.1) of the total money is guaranteed, which is the largest percentage for a veteran safety with a deal of $20 million or more on an active deal. Most four-year free-agent deals are really two-year pacts. This is more likely to be a three-year contract. If any veteran’s upside is worth betting on, though, it’s Thomas.
The deal: Three years, $15 million
I’m less enthused about Baltimore’s second move of the afternoon, which saw the team invest in a running back by signing Ingram to a three-year deal. The guarantee could end up pushing this grade in either direction; it’s not as bad of a contract if it’s a $5-6 million guarantee on a one-year pact, but if it’s closer to $10 million guaranteed, this would be even worse.
After struggling throughout most of his rookie deal, Ingram rounded into form and emerged as a valuable rotation back in New Orleans. He has worked hard to improve as a receiver, and while he’s not going to be mistaken for Alvin Kamara, he is a viable screen-and-safety valve option out of the backfield.
I don’t love the fit with Ingram and the Ravens. For one, Baltimore is going to cancel out one of its compensatory picks by signing Ingram, who wasn’t cut by the Saints. It’s true that Thomas’ contract will cancel out a higher compensatory selection, but the chances of finding a safety like Thomas after June 1 or in the draft are slim to none. It’s far easier to find running backs, and there will be useful veterans at the position who get cut in the weeks to come. The Ravens have found effective running backs for nothing in recent years by signing the likes of Justin Forsett, Alex Collins and Gus Edwards for peanuts.
It’s true that the Ravens are going to a run-heavy offense with Lamar Jackson as their quarterback, and having a veteran back like Ingram will help . Given that Jackson spent the vast majority of his time in the pistol last season, though, I would at least be a little anxious to see how Ingram adjusts. Over the past five seasons, more than 85 percent of Ingram’s carries have come from under center. He has averaged 4.8 yards per attempt on those runs, a figure that dropped to 4.4 when Drew Brees was in the shotgun or pistol. Ingram has had a higher EPA+ percentage when Brees hasn’t been under center, so it might not be a big concern, but taking a rare carry out of the shotgun and getting virtually every run out of the pistol is a different ballgame.
Ingram turns 30 in December, and while he hasn’t had a huge workload as a pro, multiyear deals for backs around this age rarely work out. I can see why the Ravens wanted to add a back, and Ingram might very well be able to translate his success in New Orleans to Baltimore, but the Ravens probably would have been better off using this $5 million to help re-sign future free agents such as Matt Judon and Patrick Onwuasor, or by going after Justin Houston to help their edge rush.
The deal: Three years, $22.5 million with $11.3 million guaranteed at signing
If the Texans were going to lose Tyrann Mathieu, Gipson at nearly half of the price is a good fallback plan. It was a bit of a surprise when the Jaguars cut the 28-year-old safety, especially because they cut fellow starter Barry Church in midseason from what had been the league’s most dominant secondary the previous season.
Gipson made his name in Cleveland as a ball hawk after intercepting 11 passes in 27 games from 2013-14, but even given legitimate ball skills, he hasn’t been able to keep up that interception rate. He has just eight picks over the ensuing 61 games, although he did knock away seven passes in each of the past two seasons. He also didn’t miss a game during his three years in Jacksonville, so for a sturdy, above-average veteran safety, the Texans came away with a good price given the rest of the market. If Gipson can spike a five-interception season during the deal, even better.
49ers get: OLB/DE Dee Ford
Chiefs get: 2020 second-round pick
49ers grade: B-
Chiefs grade: D+
I don’t want to make this grade a referendum on the hiring of new Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, but it’s hard to separate the hire from what happened here. Ford, coming off a 13-sack season, was reportedly dealt to the 49ers because he didn’t fit into Spagnuolo’s 4-3 scheme. With the news that the Chiefs were cutting Justin Houston for cap reasons earlier this week, a team whose secondary would politely be characterized as a moving sidewalk to the end zone last season is now suddenly down its top two edge rushers from a year ago.
It would be foolish, to some extent, to hire a defensive coordinator whose scheme doesn’t fit the personnel you spent years trying to acquire for a 3-4. It would be really foolish, though, to hire a defensive coordinator who hasn’t been good for a long stretch of time and then mold your new defense to his scheme. Since Spagnuolo left the Giants after the 2008 season, he has produced exactly one defense with an above-average DVOA in seven tries as a defensive coordinator or head coach.
That season came in 2016, when the Giants loaded up on free agents and just about everyone on their defense stayed healthy. They finished second in defensive DVOA. Otherwise, Spagnuolo’s defenses have ranked no better than 19th, with three bottom-three finishes and an average rank of worse than 26th in those six other seasons. He has pieced together one good season, and that was when the defense was full of big-money additions. The Chiefs just traded away their two best pass-rushers, though they added safety Tyrann Mathieu.
What’s really interesting, then, is that the 49ers are trading for Ford, given that they play a 4-3 base defense under Robert Saleh. In a league in which teams are in their nickel package more often than not, anyway, the difference between 3-4 and 4-3 for edge rushers has meant less than ever before. The Chiefs, notably, were in sub-packages with five or more defensive backs on more than 75 percent of their defensive snaps last season.
The interesting thing is figuring out where the 49ers plan on using Ford, because it could reveal their plans for the second overall pick in the draft. They have an excellent interior disruptor in DeForest Buckner, but they haven’t gotten much from their edge rushers. In 2017, their leading sack total was six, from now-retired veteran Elvis Dumervil. Last season, Cassius Marsh picked up 5.5 sacks as the weakside pass-rusher, in what Saleh and other veterans of the Seattle defensive scheme refer to as the Leo role.
In one scenario, the 49ers could use Ford as a strong-side linebacker on early downs before moving him into a pure pass-rushing role as a defensive end in obvious passing situations, similar to how the Seahawks used Bruce Irvin during most of his time in Seattle. The 252-pound Ford is similarly sized to the 250-pound Irvin, and while the Chiefs were concerned about his ability to hold up against the run as a 4-3 end, getting him off of the line of scrimmage and behind former first-round pick Arik Armstead would make his life easier.
Given that the 49ers acquired Ford and then gave him a five-year, $87.5 million extension to stick around in San Francisco, it’s hardly out of the question that they see him as their pass-rush solution at the Leo spot. It’s way easier to find a strongside linebacker who can occasionally rush the quarterback than it is to find a pure pass-rusher; this would be an absolutely enormous amount of money to pay for Ford if he lines up off of the line of scrimmage most first downs.
Ford, out of Auburn, has been productive enough as a pass-rusher to justify the role. He had a 10-sack season in his first year as a full-time starter in 2016, and while injuries held him to two sacks in six games the following season, he posted a career season with 13 sacks and 29 knockdowns last season. The Chiefs faced a league-high 684 pass plays, 14 more than any other team and 92 more than the league average, but those are excellent numbers regardless.
The price tag suggests the 49ers are trading for Ford to be their Leo. If that’s the case, they might be open for business with the second overall pick. The Cardinals have the top pick and appear to be actively making eyes at Kyler Murray. If they do go for the Oklahoma quarterback, the 49ers would theoretically have their choice of star edge rushers between Nick Bosa and Josh Allen, each of whom would figure as a possible Leo. If the Cardinals go for Bosa or Allen, the 49ers would still have a shot at one of the two options, but if they’re paying Ford to be the Leo, they’re most likely out of the edge-rushing market.
That leaves San Francisco in an interesting spot with its pick. It doesn’t need a quarterback, which would rule it out on Murray or Haskins. The Niners probably don’t want to take a tackle in the first round for the second consecutive year after drafting Mike McGlinchey in 2018, even with Joe Staley‘s advancing age, so that would wipe Jonah Williams off the board. They could target Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, who might be the best player at any position in this draft, but his role in the lineup presumably would come at the expense of Solomon Thomas, whom Lynch took with the third overall pick two years ago. Thomas has struggled, but the 49ers are unlikely to give up on a player they drafted that high.
We’re left with one other scenario: Trade down, presumably to a team which wants to grab either Haskins, Quinnen Williams or their pick of the edge rushers. That would be an ideal move for the 49ers, especially given that cornerbacks like Greedy Williams and Deandre Baker should be on the board after the top six picks come off.
As for the Chiefs, a team which should be stockpiling talent around Patrick Mahomes while the MVP is on a rookie deal has mostly been shedding pieces this offseason. Kansas City’s top edge rusher as of now is 2018 second-rounder Breeland Speaks, who had 1.5 sacks and eight knockdowns as a rookie. He might turn into a great player, but it would be lunacy to head into the season with Speaks as the top defensive end. The Chiefs can use the draft to go after one of the many edge rushers available, but this trade would have made more sense if they had been able to extract San Francisco’s second-rounder in the 2019 draft as opposed to next year’s second-rounder. Could they use the money earmarked for Ford to get more defensive help? There is no player as promising as Ford left in the free-agent pool.
The deal: Four years, $52.5 million with $35 million guaranteed
If you could go back to the summer of 2018 and tell Bell that his holdout would net an offer with an average annual salary just north of $13 million in free agency, would he be excited? My suspicion is no. I don’t think his gambit to pass on signing a $14.5 million franchise tag from the Steelers and sit out the 2018 season worked for a number of reasons.
Bell’s new deal comes in lower than most observers would have expected by just about every measure. He got $5 million less in his extension than Todd Gurley picked up from the Rams, and that was a deal signed with two years of cost control left before L.A. even got to the possibility of a franchise tag. Even more surprising, though, is that Bell’s deal averages just $125,000 per year more than the three-year, $39 million extension David Johnson signed with the Cardinals before last season. Johnson had one year left on his rookie contract, had just one year with elite production, and was coming off of a season in which he went down with a dislocated wrist in Week 1.
If you slice the $14.5 million Bell left on the table out of the contract, you might instead call this a four-year, $38 million deal. That would still make Bell the league’s third-highest paid back behind Gurley and Johnson, but it would leave him closer to the likes of Devonta Freeman than it would to Gurley. Bell’s deal can reportedly hit $61 million with incentives, which would get him over the $15 million per year number that was commonly thrown around before this free-agent period, but it’s unclear how likely those incentives are to be hit.
As CBS Sports’ Joel Corry noted in February, given the five-year, $70 million deal Bell reportedly turned down from the Steelers, he didn’t make this new contract work. Since he was already in line to make $14.5 million on the tag, he rejected an offer that would have paid him an additional $55.5 million over four seasons. Not only did Bell pass up the $14.5 million from the tag, but the offer he ended up getting on the market didn’t even hit what the remainder of Pittsburgh’s offer would have been on a long-term deal.
Bell might respond by pointing out that Pittsburgh’s deal didn’t have the sort of guaranteed money he was hoping for. As I mentioned when breaking down the Antonio Brown contract, Pittsburgh traditionally guarantees only signing bonuses in their deals. Bell would likely have had a first-year roster bonus in his deal, which would have added extra guarantees, but the Steelers would not have come up with an offer that would have actually guaranteed the $35 million he will get from the Jets without totally breaking away from their typical contractual structure. As we saw with Brown, that wasn’t going to happen.
While Bell took a year off and was able to rest his body from the wear and tear of football, Corry makes a good point about the aging rate of halfbacks. Bell essentially traded his age-26 season, where he was guaranteed $14.5 million, for a shot at adding time to his career and having a fresher season after his contract is up. Veteran backs on the wrong side of 30 rarely get meaningful money in their deals, and it would be tough to imagine a scenario in which Bell ends up getting $14.5 million for his age-31 campaign after this deal is up.
Corry suggests in his piece that Bell would have needed to come away with a four-year, $72.5 million offer in free agency to make his decision to pass up Pittsburgh’s offer worth it. Bell came up $20 million short. He will sleep just fine at night with this offer from the Jets, and it’s going to be an afterthought when we talk about Bell’s career a decade from now, but if you’re wondering why his market wasn’t as robust as he expected, let’s run down the reasons:
1. The Steelers rushing’ attack was just fine without him. The best thing for the 27-year-old’s market value would have been if Pittsburgh’s offense had collapsed in his absence. That didn’t happen. Pittsburgh’s offense averaged 25.2 points per game, up from its 24.4 points per contest in 2017. It declined in offensive DVOA, but only from third in the league to sixth.
Bell in 2017: 4.0 yards per carry, with a first-down percentage of 23.1 and an EPA+ percentage of 40.5.
Conner/Samuels in 2018: 4.5 yards per carry, with a first-down percentage of 25.5 and an EPA+ percentage of 44.6.
EPA+ percentage is the percentage of carries each back had that added to the expected points the Steelers were likely to score on their respective drives.
Pittsburgh did have to change its offense to account for Bell being gone. It threw the ball more frequently, calling for passes on 67.4 percent of its snaps last season as opposed to 58.4 percent of the offensive plays in 2017. The Steelers also missed Bell as a receiver, although Conner caught 55 passes for 497 yards and averaged 7.0 yards per target, which was better than the 6.2 yards per target Bell averaged in 2017.
Adam Schefter reports that Le’Veon Bell plans to sign with the Jets after holding out last season.
At the same time, if we can even make a credible case that the Steelers got similar production from two backs who made a combined $1.1 million in 2018 as Pittsburgh received from a franchise-tagged Bell in 2017, there’s no reason to split hairs. There’s no question the smarter teams in the league looked at how Pittsburgh operated without Bell and thought that he was less impactful after looking at the offense in his absence. (The same might very well be true for Gurley in Los Angeles after C.J. Anderson‘s late-season run.)
2. Big running back contracts typically don’t work out. Too often, teams that sign backs to hefty contracts end up regretting the deal and/or get similar production from another back on a much cheaper deal when their star is unavailable. The Rams enjoyed an excellent half-season from Gurley to start his new extension, but once the former first-rounder missed time with ankle and knee injuries, Los Angeles signed Anderson off the free-agent wire and saw him post similar production for a fraction of the cost. The Rams are going to be in the Gurley deal for a while, and he’s unquestionably a great player, but they didn’t really suffer in his absence.
Johnson averaged 3.6 yards per carry for the Cardinals last season. Freeman played in two games for the Falcons. LeSean McCoy averaged 3.2 yards per rush with Buffalo. Jerick McKinnon, who took home $12 million in the first year of his deal with the 49ers, never suited up for the team after tearing his ACL. Undrafted free agent Matt Breida averaged 5.3 yards per carry while battling injuries in McKinnon’s place.
It’s hard to find a big running back contract in recent years that worked well. The Vikings got an MVP season from Adrian Peterson‘s deal, but he missed nearly two full seasons with injuries and a suspension and had a third hampered by an ankle injury and a torn ACL. Arian Foster missed 23 games due to injuries over three years during his extension with the Texans. Chris Johnson averaged 5.0 yards per carry in the three years before his extension and 4.1 yards per carry in the three years after. DeMarco Murray lasted one year in Philadelphia before turning into a salary dump. Doug Martin was one of the league’s worst running backs after signing his extension with the Bucs. DeAngelo Williams never topped 1,000 yards after signing a massive deal to stay in Carolina.
Marshawn Lynch is probably the best-case scenario for a contract extension after this current collective bargaining agreement was signed, but he’s the exception to the rule.
3. Availability is a concern. Paying something in the range of $15 million per year to a great running back is one thing. Paying that much to a back who isn’t on the field is lighting money on fire, and there are legitimate concerns about the new Jet’s ability to line up for 16 games. He has done that only once in his pro career, although Bell would have made it twice in five tries if Mike Tomlin hadn’t sat him for a meaningless Week 17 game in 2017 against the Browns.
Excluding that rest game, Bell has missed 16 games over five NFL seasons with various injuries, most notably a torn MCL. The ailments also prevented him from contributing to Pittsburgh’s playoff runs in 2014 and 2015. He also has been suspended twice by the NFL, first for a DUI arrest, and then for missing multiple drug tests. He had the latter suspension knocked down from four games to three, which would then mean that a subsequent suspension would only count as a four-game penalty as opposed to a 10-game ban, but any team acquiring Bell would be worried about the possibility of another suspension.
4. There aren’t many teams that need running back help right now. When you consider that Mark Ingram, Tevin Coleman and Jay Ajayi are all still free agents, the running back market is flooded with supply against limited demand. How many teams really have a hole?
I saw only four teams that could justify making a serious play for Bell because they need a starting running back: the Jets, Raiders, Buccaneers and Washington, who don’t really have the cap space to add Bell after giving Landon Collins a deal with significant money in Years 2 and 3. The Raiders spent their cash on hand on Antonio Brown, Lamarcus Joyner and Trent Brown. The Bucs might still believe in 2018 second-rounder Ronald Jones, just as Washington will likely try to turn things over to Derrius Guice.
There were other teams that might have been willing to cut their incumbent starter and replace them with Bell, and according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, one nearly did. The 49ers went after Bell in a move that would have seen them theoretically cut McKinnon before ever playing a game with the team. Bell is a better back than the former Vikings backup, and the Niners would have had the money to make the move, but Kyle Shanahan’s offense simply does not require an expensive running back to succeed, and we have more than two decades of history as proof.
Other teams that were rumored to be involved didn’t make sense. The Ravens are too smart to pay an enormous premium for a running back. The Eagles have repeatedly saved money at the halfback position under GM Howie Roseman in recent years to invest elsewhere. I’m a little surprised that teams such as the Bills and Texans didn’t make a run at Bell to try to replace McCoy or Lamar Miller, respectively, but by Tuesday afternoon, it felt like the Jets were mostly negotiating against themselves.
They always made the most sense as the likeliest suitor for Bell. They had a ton of cap space and a general manager who was desperate to spend it to keep his job. Mike Maccagnan has a history of paying running backs, although those signings generally haven’t moved the needle. New York needed to upgrade with Bilal Powell hitting free agency and Isaiah Crowell finishing 46th out of 47 backs by Football Outsiders’ measure of success rate.
The Jets’ goal this offseason was to build a better infrastructure around Sam Darnold, and Bell was the natural final piece. They hired an offensive head coach in Adam Gase, signed slot receiver Jamison Crowder, and traded for Raiders guard Kelechi Osemele. They probably need to add a center after missing out on Matt Paradis, and tight end is still a question mark, but in the Jets’ efforts to find weapons for Darnold, Bell is a considerable upgrade on the backs they have.
These moves will take a lot of pressure off Darnold to make plays downfield. When healthy, Crowder is a valuable slot receiver and a source of relatively easy yardage. Bell’s utility as a receiver is well-known; while the claims that he amounts to a No. 2 wideout were overblown at the time in 2017, he’s certainly one of the most effective receiving backs in football.
Gase struggled to figure out his running back situation in Miami, repeatedly stumbling between options. He started his tenure by trying to sign Anderson to an offer sheet that the Broncos matched. The Dolphins then signed Foster and built a four-back rotation before turning things over to Ajayi, who broke out in a massive way. One year later, the Dolphins grew frustrated with their culture and traded Ajayi to the Eagles to try to fix it. Ajayi was such a problem there that he won a Super Bowl.
Next, Gase turned the job over to a timeshare between Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams before eventually giving the full-time gig to Drake, who carried the ball 91 times for 444 yards over the final five games of the 2017 season. Dolphins fans were excited about the idea of a full season from Drake as the starter, only for Miami to sign Frank Gore and give him 156 carries to Drake’s 120.
Now, though, the story is set in stone before the opener even begins. Gase will plug in Bell and worry about the rest of his roster. I would be worried about possible friction down the line if Bell struggles and Gase is still coach, but the Jets didn’t shell out this sort of money to have their star sit on the sidelines. He’s going to get a heavy workload, with occasional rest provided from third-year back Elijah McGuire.
There will naturally be speculation that the Jets did this for promotional purposes. They might have upped their offer after the embarrassment of losing Anthony Barr back to the Vikings because he “felt sick” about joining the Jets. They might have wanted to win the war in the New York papers against the Giants, although they couldn’t have known that the Giants would cede competitiveness to them by trading away Odell Beckham Jr. hours before Bell announced his pact.
I don’t think those factors ended up mattering all that much. The Giants ran themselves into the ground without the Jets’ help. The Jets shouldn’t spend money on a running back because a would-be edge rusher didn’t end up taking their cash after all. New York can now go into the draft with a reasonable shot of coming away with Nick Bosa, given that the Cardinals appear to be looking at Kyler Murray with the No. 1 overall pick, while the 49ers just signed their Leo rusher by trading for Dee Ford. Adding Bosa or Josh Allen would plug the team’s biggest remaining hole on defense.
In the end, Bell and the Jets are a marriage of convenience. Maccagnan needed to add weapons for his young quarterback, but there weren’t exciting-enough wideouts on the market for the Jets to displace Robby Anderson. A running back will do. Bell unquestionably wanted more money than this, but in the absence of a massive deal, he’ll come away with merely life-changing money. Amid a two-day frenzy in which players such as Billy Turner and Justin Coleman were coming away with stunningly large deals, Bell’s contract is one of the first in this free-agent period to come in short of expectations. He will have to defy history to do the same in New York.
I went longer on the OBJ trade — and why the Browns won — so read the full analysis here.
Tuesday, March 12
The deal: Four years, $44 million with $22.5 million guaranteed
Once a frustrating left tackle and very nearly a Raider, Saffold finishes his nine-year stint with the Rams as one of the best guards in football. Although the 30-year-old hasn’t made it to the Pro Bowl, he probably deserved to make it to at least one of the two most recent events, even if the Super Bowl would have precluded him from playing in this past year’s gala. Saffold struggled to stay healthy earlier in his career, but the former second-round pick has missed only one game due to injury the past three seasons.
There’s always going to be danger of a free agent leaving the protective cocoon of Sean McVay and the Rams and looking worse in the process, but Saffold was effective even before McVay arrived in L.A. In joining the Titans, Saffold will become part of what will be one of the most expensively assembled lines in the league. Taylor Lewan is on a five-year, $80 million deal. Josh Kline re-signed last year for four years and $26 million. Center Ben Jones is in the final year of a four-year, $17.5 million pact. Right tackle Jack Conklin is still on a rookie deal, but he was drafted with the eighth overall selection. The Titans still might add another guard to push Kline, who struggled in 2018, to the bench or off the roster. Marcus Mariota can’t claim that the Titans haven’t gifted him with offensive line help.
The deal: One year, $10 million
With the Texans losing Kareem Jackson to free agency and Johnathan Joseph turning 35 next month, Houston needed to address its cornerback situation. In part, that’s because it doesn’t trust the cornerback it invested in last offseason, since Aaron Colvin ended the season as a healthy scratch in the playoff loss to the Colts. You have to figure the Texans will try to restore Colvin to the slot corner role in 2019, but they needed to find at least one cornerback this offseason.
I like the addition of Roby, who looked to be one of the league’s most promising young cornerbacks before a frustrating 2018. I would have preferred the Texans to come away with at least an option year to go with this one-year pact, but the $10 million price tag is reasonable for a 26-year-old cornerback who has missed just one game in five seasons and looked to be ascending for most of his career.
The deal: Two years, up to $13 million
Have you ever watched a sitcom play the “will they or won’t they?” game with a would-be couple for so long that you get sick of waiting to find out what will happen? That’s where I am with Parker and the Dolphins, who have seemingly spent the past two seasons about to move on from their frustrating-yet-talented former first-round pick.
When teams change personnel departments, they make a habit of moving on from the old regime’s difficult draft picks, to whom they have no attachment. Somehow, in this case, the arrival of coach Brian Flores & Co. has strangely managed to get Parker an extra life. Parker wasn’t going to be worth his fifth-year option, but the Dolphins restructured the contract into a two-year deal, which gives him a chance to prove himself with the team that drafted him one last time.
The deal: Four years, $42 million with $16.7 million guaranteed at signing
The longtime Rams safety will stay in California for one more year before moving to Nevada, as Joyner was able to stay within a short flight of Los Angeles by signing with the Raiders. It was clear that the Rams were going to move on from their most recent franchise-tagged player this offseason for cap reasons after signing Eric Weddle, and though the market was flush with free safeties, Joyner was able to quickly find a new home.
Given what other safeties are getting, this is a reasonable deal for Oakland. The most similar safety to Joyner in this pool is Tyrann Mathieu, who has a more significant injury history. Mathieu got a maximum of $42 million over three years from the Chiefs, and Joyner got $42 million over four from the Raiders. The guaranteed figure suggests that this is a two-year pact, which is just fine for a player who turns 29 in November.
With that said, it’s worth remembering that Joyner struggled to find an effective home in the Rams’ defense for the first three seasons of his career before Wade Phillips marched into town and kept him at free safety. The Raiders will have to be similarly disciplined with the 5-foot-8 Joyner, who is useful as a center fielder and as an occasional slot corner against certain matchups. In a division with Patrick Mahomes and Philip Rivers, you can understand why they might want to try to protect against slot receivers and deep passes.
The deal: Three years, $27 million
Panthers fans might have been worried about the pivot after longtime starter Ryan Kalil retired this offseason, but the Panthers should be in excellent shape with Paradis, who quietly matured into one of the league’s best centers in Denver. The former sixth-round pick won a Super Bowl with the Broncos in 2015 and played under three offensive coordinators during his four years as a starter, so he should be able to get with coordinator Norv Turner’s offense quickly.
From the Panthers’ perspective, this deal has to be considered a victory at a position of need. Paradis is older than most first-time free agents and turns 30 in October, so it’s good that Carolina was able to keep this to a three-year pact. In a market in which Mitch Morse’s four-year deal averaged $11.1 million per season, the Panthers managed to keep Paradis below the top free agents from last year’s center class at $9 million per season.
Paradis is still recovering from the fractured fibula that ended his 2018 season, but unless there’s something sneaky about this deal, it looks like an excellent move for general manager Marty Hurney and Carolina.
The deal: Five years, $67.5 million with $33 million guaranteed
Few star players seem to oscillate more from week to week and season to season than Barr, who has made the Pro Bowl four consecutive times despite seemingly failing to win over Vikings fans and even his own coaching staff for stretches of time. He was downright bad for stretches in 2016, which ended with coach Mike Zimmer criticizing his star linebacker for coasting in games. Barr had a huge bounce-back season in 2017, which led to Zimmer calling Barr “my guy” and a target for an extension in August 2018, but Barr was brutally exposed during the nationally televised loss to the Rams in Week 4 last season. He allowed three of Jared Goff‘s five touchdowns that day, two of which came with him isolated against Rams wide receivers.
It isn’t Barr’s fault that he wasn’t able to cover Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods in space, but it’s a reminder of how difficult it can be to carve out the right role for the linebacker, who was a fullback at UCLA before converting to defense. He’s such an incredible athlete that you might be able to get by with him covering a wideout in an emergency. Few defenders have the size and strength to hold up as a strong-side linebacker and the silky fluidity to challenge left tackles as a pass-rusher.
At the same time, though, the Vikings haven’t used Barr as an edge rusher frequently. Blessed with Everson Griffen, Brian Robison and later Danielle Hunter on the edge, most of Barr’s 13.5 sacks have come off the line of scrimmage. Zimmer has been able to turn Barr loose with the threat of overload blitzes and terrified opposing quarterbacks with double A-gap pressure. He has picked up at least one sack as a spy and has been used as a “green dog” blitzer, coming in late when Barr sees that his man is staying in as a pass-blocker.
The numbers suggest that Barr is an effective pass-rusher in his current role, surely owing to that athleticism. There have been 326 players who have rushed the quarterback 400 or more times since Barr entered the league in 2014. He has 499 pass-rush attempts, while stars such as Von Miller and Chandler Jones have more than 2,200. He has taken down opposing quarterbacks once every 37 pass-rush tries, which is the 15th-best rate in football in that time.
It’s very good, but it’s in line with the rates posted by less athletic linebackers such as Demario Davis (33.4 attempts per sack), Avery Williamson (36.4) and Jamie Collins (a league-best 28.5), none of whom was paid on his pass-rushing potential. Barr reportedly has significant sack incentives built into the contract he is expected to sign to stay with the Vikings, so it’s clear that he’s hoping to rush the passer more frequently on this new deal.
The Vikings probably had to hand him those incentives to lure him back from the Jets, given that he reportedly agreed to a deal with New York before changing his mind Tuesday and agreeing to terms with the Vikings. Minnesota is set on paper with Griffen and Hunter on the edges, but there’s at least a theoretical chance that it could cut Griffen and move Barr into a role as a regular edge rusher.
If the Vikings don’t turn Barr into a regularly impactful pass-rusher, though, it’s hard to see him returning significant excess value on this deal as an off-ball linebacker. Those players get paid less than edge rushers, and the Vikings were forced to value Barr like an edge rusher to keep him around. Given that they are already under cap constraints after signing Kirk Cousins and are reportedly about to hand Adam Thielen a well-deserved raise, they’re going to have to cut players who might be more impactful to get their roster settled for 2019.
The deal: Four years, $36 million with $20 million guaranteed
Hicks has a $12 million signing bonus, so the $9 million in dead money that would come after releasing him in Year 1 suggests that this is at least a two-year pact. He should take home something in the $18-$20 million range in the first two years of that deal, and while he can be a talented player, injuries are an enormous concern for the former Eagles starter. Hicks has missed 19 games in four seasons and completed just one 16-game season (2016).
He recorded seven interceptions in his first 24 games, and a Cardinals team that picked off seven passes all season in 2018 might look at his past tape and hope to come away with a linebacker who can drop into coverage and steal a couple passes per season. Hicks has no interceptions in the ensuing 19 games, but on those seven picks, he showed great ball skills. Look at this diving pick against Eli Manning! If he can force a few takeaways per season and stay healthy, the Cardinals will be happy with how this turns out. I understand that upside exists, but Hicks’ history suggests that it’s unlikely to show itself for long stretches of time in Arizona.
The deal: Two years, $14.5 million with $7.7 million guaranteed
There’s a lot to like with Buffalo signing Nsekhe, who was the swing tackle on an injury-hit Washington line last season. The Bills aren’t making an enormous commitment to the 33-year-old tackle, given his age, but they did get what amounts to a second-year option if the former Arena League lineman doesn’t impress in a starting role. The Bills have a need at tackle, and while I thought general manager Brandon Beane might target former Panthers tackle Daryl Williams, Nsekhe should immediately step in as a starter at one of the two tackle spots.
Dion Dawkins struggled in 2018, his first full season as the starter on the left side, while Nsekhe was impressive when filling in for the injured Trent Williams at left tackle. During his four seasons in Washington, Nsekhe started 16 games and allowed just five sacks, per Stats LLC. He notably handled Jadeveon Clowney when Washington faced the Texans last season.
There are two concerns keeping this from being an A grade. One is Nsekhe’s propensity for penalties. He recorded seven on just 377 snaps a year ago and has 15 across 1,226 offensive snaps from his four seasons in Washington. I would be worried about the penalties popping up in Buffalo, especially given how frequently Josh Allen is inclined to scramble out of the pocket to try to make plays.
As Damien Woody noted on Twitter, Nsekhe’s offensive line coach in Washington was Bill Callahan, who might very well be the best in football. The Bills just hired new offensive line coach Bobby Johnson, who has been an assistant offensive line coach and a tight ends coach in years past but will be running an offensive line room himself for the first time as an NFL coach.
The deal: Four years, $14.4 million
Murray’s deal has been seen as proof that Mark Ingram‘s time with the Saints is coming to a close, and given that the former first-rounder is coming off of a PED suspension and turns 30 in December, I can understand why the Saints would move on. I’m not quite as clear as to why the Saints feel the need to continue paying a premium for the guy who will serve as their secondary back behind Alvin Kamara.
In four years as a regular with the Raiders and Vikings, Murray has been an adequate back, if a below-average starter. While his most memorable play is still the 90-yard run he put on the Chiefs in a 24-20 Raiders win on national television during his rookie season, Murray hasn’t been a big-play back. He has one run of more than 50 yards and three of more than 40 yards in the past four seasons.
Great! The Saints don’t need a big-play back with Kamara around. They just need someone who can run between the tackles and keep the offense on schedule, right? Well, Murray hasn’t been exciting there, either. In his career, just 34.6 percent of his rushes have increased his team’s chances of scoring points on their respective drives by ESPN’s expected points model. There are 33 backs with 500 carries or more in that time, and the only ones worse than Murray by this metric are Alfred Blue and Isaiah Crowell.
The Saints once got excellent production out of players such as Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, each of whom was signed as an undrafted free agent. Kamara was a third-round pick. It’s extremely likely that they would be able to find a useful power back for close to the minimum in free agency or in the later rounds of the draft, especially given how deadly their passing game has been for a decade. New Orleans isn’t going to be paying a huge amount for Murray, but it could easily save a couple million dollars here and apply it to a position at which it can’t feel as confident about finding useful contributors for cheap.
The deal: Three years, $27 million
Josh Allen has his deep threat. Brown impressed in the first half of a one-year, $5 million deal with the Ravens last season, as the former Cardinals standout racked up 558 yards and four touchdowns through the first seven games. Brown went quiet for the final three weeks of Joe Flacco‘s run with the Ravens, though, and once Lamar Jackson entered the lineup, he disappeared. The 28-year-old caught just eight passes for 114 yards on 30 pass attempts from Jackson.
Jackson was 30th in the league on deep passes (16-plus yards downfield), posting a 56.7 QBR. Flacco was 31st. Cam Newton, who had a shoulder injury preventing him from throwing downfield for the second half of the season, was 32nd. Allen was 33rd, as the highly touted Wyoming product posted a 26.6 Total QBR and a 45.1 passer rating on deep attempts. He did eventually find a bit of a connection with undrafted free agent Robert Foster, though Brown would presumably end up taking away snaps from Foster in the lineup.
Brown was also healthy after shuffling in and out of the lineup for two years with a cyst on his spine and injuries to his hamstring, quadriceps, and toe. He was diagnosed with the sickle-cell trait during his time in Arizona, which might impact how quickly he heals from injuries. In a market in which slot receivers are getting $9 million per season, though, his deal is reasonable. It’s also one where the grade would shift based on the guarantee.
If the Bills only guaranteed $9 million or so of this contract, this would be a B+ deal. If the Bills guaranteed $16 million and basically made this a two-year pact, I would lean more toward a B-. Either way, this is a high-upside signing for a Bills team that needed one for Allen’s sake.
The deal: Four years, $29 million with $14 million guaranteed
I’m not as enthused about the addition of Beasley, who is signed to what appears to be more realistically a two-year deal with an annual average salary of about $7 million per season. The former undrafted free agent wasn’t particularly effective during his most recent contract extension with the Cowboys. He ranked fifth in the league in receiving DVOA during Dak Prescott‘s rookie season in 2016, but he didn’t post impressive efficiency numbers in 2015, 2017 or 2018.
Individual DVOA can be a flawed statistic, but Beasley has to walk a tightrope to stay valuable given that he naturally doesn’t offer much as a downfield threat. If he posts a catch rate of 57 percent, as he did in 2017, it’s impossible to play him. In the mid-70s — where Beasley was in 2016 and 2018 — is far more palatable.
I’d be a little worried about aging, since the research I’ve done on defensive backs suggests that smaller players struggle more frequently after turning 30 than larger defenders, and it wouldn’t shock me if the same thing were true for shorter wideouts. The 5-foot-8 Beasley can’t afford to lose a step of agility. He’ll be a useful safety valve for Allen, but better franchises develop slot receivers from picks late in the draft or out of undrafted free agency. Beasley has not been a difference-maker in the same way that Brown has been when healthy.
The deal: Four years, $66 million with a $20 million signing bonus
Smith was a minor breakout candidate going into 2017. He racked up 16 quarterback knockdowns to go with a mere 3.5 sacks that season, which usually hints at an increase the following year. Indeed, in a bigger role, Smith pieced together an impressive contract year with 8.5 sacks and 25 knockdowns, leading him to this big deal with Green Bay.
This isn’t the first time the Ravens have had a backup break out with a big sack total in the fourth year of his career. In 2012, Paul Kruger had nine sacks and then signed a big contract with the Browns. Kruger did put together an 11-sack season, but he recorded a total of 8.5 sacks in his three other post-Ravens campaigns. In 2014, Pernell McPhee impressed with 7.5 sacks and 26 knockdowns, leading him to sign a multiyear deal with the Bears. Injuries sapped McPhee’s effectiveness, and he has generated 14 sacks in four subsequent seasons.
Smith is closer to McPhee than he is to Kruger, which is good. I also like his upside more than Preston Smith‘s. The Packers also just paid Za’Darius $16.5 million per season, which is a staggering amount of money for a player who has one year of notable production as a pass-rusher. Trey Flowers, who has been a far more productive player, just took home something in the ballpark of $17 million per season. Chandler Jones and Melvin Ingram average $16.5 million on their extensions.
If the average annual salary here is true — and that’s always a dangerous assumption before the specific contract details are out — this is simply too much money. Smith’s representation tweeted that Smith will take home $34.5 million over two seasons, though, which is probably close to what the practical guarantee will be on this contract. Smith needs to produce 25 sacks over those two seasons to make the math work on this for the Packers, and he hasn’t yet been at that level as a pro.
The deal: Three years, $39 million with $21.5 million guaranteed
When I previewed the Browns’ offseason last month, two of my five moves were to upgrade the defensive line by adding an edge rusher and an interior disruptor to complement Myles Garrett and Larry Ogunjobi. I suggested that the Browns look at a duo of Justin Houston and Ndamukong Suh, but general manager John Dorsey did just fine with his own additions and went younger. After trading for Giants edge rusher Olivier Vernon, Dorsey filled out his defensive line by signing Richardson to a three-year deal.
This is a huge upgrade on Trevon Coley, who started for the Browns at defensive tackle in each of the past two seasons and will now likely move into a reserve role. Richardson has been routinely productive as an interior rusher and in 2018 recorded his third season with 15 or more quarterback knockdowns in six tries. He has underperformed his knockdown totals a bit, with 23.5 career sacks to show for his 76 hits, but Richardson is a very good interior pass-rusher, if not a top-tier option like Fletcher Cox or Aaron Donald.
There’s too much talent involved here to really dislike this move much. The only complaints I can muster are minor. You might have hoped for a more stout run defender at the point of attack to play next to Ogunjobi, who is probably best as a Geno Atkins-style penetrating tackle. Richardson might not be asked to try to get into the backfield quite as frequently during this deal, which is a place where he excels, but I’m confident the Browns will find pass-rushing opportunities for both of their interior linemen. Richardson also had significant off-field issues earlier in his career, although that hasn’t been an issue in recent years. This is realistically a two-year deal, so the Browns don’t even have significant exposure if things go south.
The deal: Four years, $37 million
After attempting to sign away cornerback Kyle Fuller from the Bears last offseason, the Packers finally stole a piece of the secondary from their divisional rivals. They traded Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in October and moved longtime cornerback Tramon Williams into the free safety spot, where the 35-year-old did surprisingly well for a veteran moved into a new role out of desperation in midseason. A rash of injuries in the secondary left the Packers starting street free agents Eddie Pleasant and Ibraheim Campbell in games during the second half. It was a mess.
While Amos can play either safety spot, my suspicion is that he’ll primarily end up playing free safety for the Packers, who have Kentrell Brice and Josh Jones to compete for the strong safety spot. There’s always a risk of adding one piece from a great defense and hoping he’ll be the same player in a lesser unit, but the Packers might not be far off from above-average cornerback play if Jaire Alexander continues to improve after an impressive rookie season across from Josh Jackson and Kevin King. (Amos also helps give Green Bay the most alliterative defensive backfield in football.)
Amos hasn’t had the sort of breakout, takeaway-laden season that ex-teammates Fuller and Eddie Jackson had in 2018. He hasn’t deflected a million passes or forced a bunch of fumbles. It’s a bit of a surprise to see him earn north of $9 million per year, but he’s a solid, versatile safety who will allow the Packers to disguise more of what they want to do before the snap and give them the flexibility to bring in a more specific sort of free or strong safety if they choose to upgrade at the other spot in the draft. He also doesn’t turn 26 until April, so Green Bay should be getting his peak seasons.
The deal: Four years, $28 million
The grade: D
A penny for Ted Thompson’s thoughts. The longtime Packers general manager famously avoided free agency to the chagrin of some Packers fans, with the David Byrne lookalike preferring to build through the draft and rack up compensatory picks. The Packers tiptoed in the other direction last offseason under new GM Brian Gutekunst by signing Jimmy Graham and Muhammad Wilkerson, but after sprinting into free agency on Tuesday with four signings, the game has officially changed.
In the case of Turner, that’s not for the better. It’s difficult to see Thompson making this sort of move. Turner was a project coming out of North Dakota State when the Dolphins took him in the third round of the 2014 draft, and he struggled in a season starting at right guard before Miami released him in 2016. Turner caught on with the Ravens practice squad and then made his way to Denver, where he spent two years as a reserve or on injured reserve before being forced into the lineup in 2018.
With the help of a highly regarded offensive line coach in Sean Kugler, who is now in Arizona, Turner looked better in his return to the lineup. He filled in at both right tackle and left guard while starting 11 games, and Stats LLC credited him as responsible for 3.5 sacks. Turner committed only two penalties in those 11 starts, which is reasonably impressive, too. The Broncos were hit by injuries along their line and still managed to run the ball effectively, finishing fifth in rush offense DVOA.
Before the 2018 season, Turner looked like a replacement-level lineman. Now, the 27-year-old looks like he might be a useful utility lineman, although you wouldn’t really want to plug Turner in and count on him as a starter. The Packers are giving Turner $11 million in the first year of this deal, which values Turner as a surefire starter, likely at guard.
Green Bay needed to upgrade on Justin McCray, but it’s unclear whether Turner’s lone competent season as a pro will translate without Kugler in the mix. It’s also a change from a Packers organization that has been drafting and developing guards effectively for seemingly decades. Would a reunion with T.J. Lang (if healthy) at a much lower price point have made more sense?
Given that the Packers have four top-75 picks and just spent heavily on their biggest defensive weaknesses, could they have found a similarly promising prospect in the draft for far less? Turner is too expensive of a lottery ticket.
The deal: Four years, $52 million with $16 million guaranteed at signing
One of two pass-rushers named Smith to sign with the Packers on Tuesday, Preston has had an interesting four-year career across from Ryan Kerrigan in Washington. He produced eight sacks on 305 pass-rushing opportunities as a rookie, which seemed to hint that the second-round pick held serious potential as a breakout star.
Since then, Smith has been closer to good than great. He has stayed healthy and started 48 games, but he has racked up only 16.5 sacks in the ensuing three seasons across 1,130 pass rushes, which means he has generated sacks nearly half as frequently as he did during that rookie campaign. Smith’s 49 knockdowns over that time suggest a slightly more optimistic approach, given that they would predict a 22-sack total, but Smith’s cumulative three-year production is in the same ballpark with guys like Chris Long, Lorenzo Alexander and longtime Packers stalwart Clay Matthews.
Matthews is a free agent, and the Packers made it clear he won’t be coming back as an edge rusher with their signings on Tuesday. Along with the Za’Darius Smith signing, the Packers will be using their two Smiths to replace Matthews and soon-to-be free agent Nick Perry.
I understand the desire to move on from disappointing veterans and upgrade the edge rush, and there’s certainly upside here, given that both Smiths are 26. At the same time, though, the Packers are paying something north of $20 million per season to two players who haven’t produced a single nine-sack season in eight tries. They both benefited from playing alongside excellent talent and rarely saw double-teams.
Most importantly, the Packers are making these moves in a year in which they have two first-round picks in a draft full of edge-rushing talent. It’s possible Green Bay looked at the draft crop and didn’t see impactful players falling to them at picks 12 or 30, but most other organizations don’t seem to feel that way about this year’s class. It’s not an optimal use of resources to take expensive swings at young contributors with upside when the Packers already were well-positioned to take much cheaper swings at promising players. Adding one edge rusher in free agency made sense, but two is probably overkill.
The deal: Five years, $85 million with $51 million in guarantees
Note: This analysis — not the grade — was tweaked after Anthony Barr backed out of his deal with the Jets on Tuesday.
I didn’t think Mosley would actually leave Baltimore. The Ravens have lost players they wanted to keep such as Dannell Ellerbe and Kelechi Osemele, but Mosley was the successor to Ray Lewis! He’s a 26-year-old linebacker with four Pro Bowl appearances in his first five seasons. Those guys turn into Hall of Famers at a scary pace. Even if you don’t think Mosley is necessarily on that track, this is the most damaging free agent the Ravens have lost in a while.
It’s an enormous decision from new general manager Eric DeCosta, in his first offseason running things after Ozzie Newsome retired, to drop out of the bidding for Mosley. Good organizations generally set a price tag on players or positions, though, and this is an absolutely astronomical deal for an interior linebacker. We’re still waiting on the specifics, but Mosley will have a $17 million average annual salary at a position in which nobody else was even topping $12.5 million before Kwon Alexander hit $13.5 million yesterday.
To put this in context, consider that the two biggest signings at inside linebacker during the last free-agent period were Anthony Hitchens and Demario Davis, who left for the Chiefs and Saints, respectively. Mosley is a better player than either, though Davis had a good debut season in New Orleans. Mosley’s $17 million average annual salary is equal to what Hitchens ($9 million) and Davis ($8 million) are getting on their respective deals combined.
The third-highest-paid free-agent addition at inside linebacker a year ago was Avery Williamson, which is one of the reasons why I find the fit curious here. The Jets weren’t great on defense last season, but they were functional at inside linebacker, where Williamson held up as a solid run defender and former first-round pick Darron Lee finally took a step forward and improved as a cover linebacker and communicator. They then hired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who has spent most of his career working out of a 4-3 base.
Adding a third inside linebacker who makes record-setting money, then, doesn’t really seem to make sense. If the Jets line up in a 4-3, they would have Lee as the weakside linebacker, Mosley in the middle, and Williamson in an unfamiliar role as the strongside option in a year where the Jets owe him $6 million guaranteed. I don’t love that fit.
Let’s say they stay in the 3-4, where they would run out Mosley and Williamson as inside linebackers and keep Jordan Jenkins, who had seven sacks last season, in his established role as a 3-4 outside linebacker. The Jets have been linked to edge rushers like Josh Allen in the first round of this year’s draft, and if they grab one, Lee won’t have a place to play and would become late-round trade bait.
With $17 million per year, the Jets could theoretically have waited a day or two and added multiple starters to their roster, which is hardly deep with talent. I can understand wanting to add a star like Mosley and figuring out the fit later, but I don’t think this is the best use of the Jets’ resources, especially in a year where the draft holds a ton of front-seven talent.
I would suspect the Ravens will survive losing Mosley, although they’ll unquestionably take a hit. They’ll likely recoup a third-round compensatory pick for losing the Alabama product, and they could use the money they saved to re-sign both Matt Judon and Patrick Onwuasor, who are free agents next offseason. They’ve also lost a pair of outside linebackers in Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith to go along with free safety Eric Weddle, and it wouldn’t shock me to see them enter into the cut market to go after someone like Justin Houston to help cover some of their losses.
The deal: One year, $12 million with $2 million in possible incentives
When the Rams created cap space by moving on from John Sullivan and Mark Barron, it seemed it might be in part to retain one of their defensive linemen. They badly needed edge-rushing help after their offseason spending spree, and after trading for Fowler in midseason, the Rams decided to keep him and not Ndamukong Suh. Fowler’s one-year, $12 million deal will give the former third overall pick a chance to prove himself in advance of free agency.
I’m not sure this contract really does the Rams a ton of favors, though. One-year deals with significant money for younger players who haven’t yet broken out aren’t my favorite. If he fails, you’ve spent money on a player who didn’t live up to your expectations. (Donte Moncrief‘s 2018 deal with the Jags is a good example of this conundrum.) If the player finally has his standout season, though, you’re stuck either using the franchise tag or letting him walk. Given that future seasons of NFL contracts aren’t necessarily guaranteed, it’s always good to try to get at least a second season on a deal for a young player.
In this case, the Rams probably didn’t have that option if they wanted to bring back Fowler, who would have attracted long-term interest on the open market. I’m just not sure he was quite as impactful as it seemed a year ago. Fowler had all of two sacks and five quarterback hits in 220 pass-rushing opportunities with the Rams last season, which isn’t impressive for a player whose team was often ahead and who got to rush alongside Suh and Aaron Donald.
Fowler then added 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hits in Los Angeles’ three-game run to Super Bowl LIII, with the latter figure including his hit on Drew Brees that forced a critical interception in overtime of the NFC Championship Game. That’s an absolutely enormous play, of course, but Fowler had 3.5 sacks and eight hits in 11 games with the Rams. From the moment he joined the team, L.A. produced a 5.4 percent sack rate and a 28.1 percent pressure rate with him on the field and a 5.7 percent sack rate with a 30.2 pressure percentage with him off of it.
And really, he hasn’t been a great pass-rusher at any point in his career. He was drafted as an athletic freak who the Jags hoped would eventually turn into their Leo edge rusher, but he had 14.5 sacks in three years while bouncing around different positions at Florida. After missing his entire rookie season with a torn ACL, Fowler had only four sacks and 11 knockdowns in his debut campaign in 2016. He did produce a career-high eight sacks as a rotation rusher on that dominant Jags line in 2017, but it came on just 10 knockdowns, a rate he wasn’t going to be able to keep up. The Jaguars weren’t impressed enough by that total to pick up Fowler’s fifth-year option for 2019, and after generating two sacks in seven games, they dealt him to Los Angeles.
Everyone sees that Fowler looks like a star, and with a full training camp under Wade Phillips’ tutelage, he might very well fulfill his potential. Up to this point, though, he hasn’t been an impactful NFL player, and the Rams are paying him close to what they paid Suh — who had perennially been impactful — last season.
Monday, March 11
The deal: Four years, $51 million with $32 million guaranteed
This time last year, James’ status with the Dolphins appeared to be on shaky ground after he missed the second half of the 2017 season with a hamstring injury. One report suggested that the Dolphins were going to release James from his fifth-year option, though that report turned out to be inaccurate. Another rumor suggested that the Dolphins were considering dealing James to the Broncos in a deal for running back C.J. Anderson, whom the Dolphins had previously targeted as a restricted free agent.
James responded in 2018 with his best season. The former first-round pick suited up for 15 games and committed seven penalties, which seems like an unimpressive feat until you consider that he averaged 10.2 penalties per 15 games in his first four seasons. Per Stats LLC, James allowed five sacks, which is right in line with his career rate when he has played a full season (or something close to it). I would give him extra credit, given that the Miami quarterback for a good chunk of the season was Brock Osweiler, who is not exactly a mobile weapon within the pocket.
There’s nothing in James’ track record, though, that suggests he’s worthy of this sort of deal. He is now comfortably the highest-paid right tackle in football, with his $13 million average annual salary placing him ahead of Lane Johnson ($11.3 million) and Rick Wagner ($9.5 million). Both Johnson and Wagner were far more effective and consistent on their rookie deals than James was on his.
You almost wonder whether the Broncos are signing James to play left tackle with the idea of moving Garett Bolles to the right side given the price tag, but this still wouldn’t make sense unless there were other teams that valued James as a solution on the left side. Right tackle has been a disaster for Denver under general manager John Elway, where recent additions such as Donald Stephenson, Menelik Watson and Jared Veldheer have failed to pan out.
This is paying way over the odds to fix the problem, and I’m not sure it’ll solve things. Given that the Broncos were able to hire legendary offensive line coach Mike Munchak this offseason to run their offensive line, it seems like they would have been better off with a cheaper veteran such as Jermey Parnell and a rookie for Munchak to mold into a starter.
The deal: One year, $10 million (with an additional $3 million in incentives)
While some were suggesting that the Colts and their $100 million war chest were going to be big spenders in free agency, it was always more likely that general manager Chris Ballard’s organization would pick its spots and wait for prices to go down. There are no discounts on day one of the legal-tampering period. Although Indy did make a signing, it’s going to raise some eyebrows.
It seemed likely that Funchess would have to settle for a one-year, prove-it deal after the Michigan product was excommunicated from the Panthers’ offense during the second half of 2018, but I didn’t expect him to get this sort of cash. If the Colts were willing to pay this much for a one-year deal on a young player, they should have been able to toe the line and get an option year to use if Funchess returned to form. There’s always a middle ground — maybe the second year would void if Funchess had a 1,500-yard season or something truly spectacular — but speculative one-year deals for young players just don’t make a lot of sense.
The closest equivalent to this last offseason was the one-year, $9.6 million deal Donte Moncrief signed with the Jaguars. I gave that deal an F for many of the same reasons. I’m a little more sanguine on Funchess’ deal, if only because Funchess was better at his pre-free-agency peak (in 2017) than Moncrief was in his (2015). Funchess should take over the Dontrelle Inman role in Indy’s lineup, but I wonder if the Colts would’ve been better off re-signing Inman at a lower rate.
The deal: Three years, $33 million with $23 million guaranteed
Where will Jackson line up for the Broncos? The Texans were planning to move him to safety last season before moving the long-time cornerback to his original position because of an injury crisis. The good news, in a way, is that the Broncos need help at cornerback and safety with Bradley Roby a free agent and Darian Stewart off the roster.
At this price, Jackson is making midtier free-agent money at corner, which isn’t bad for a player who has generally been an average-to-good player on the outside as a pro. My guess is that the Broncos will start Jackson, who turns 31 at the beginning of this deal, at cornerback before moving him to safety by the end of this deal. In a thin cornerback market, even given that Jackson is on the wrong side of 30, his prior level of play and relative durability suggest that it wouldn’t have been shocking if he had taken home more than this.
The deal: Four years, $26 million with $11.5 million guaranteed
Vaccaro had to wait until August to sign a deal with the Titans last year, and that came only after starter Johnathan Cyprien tore his ACL in camp. Vaccaro proceeded to steal Cyprien’s job with an impressive season, and the Titans decided to make the arrangement permanent by giving him a long-term deal.
This contract should lock in Vaccaro as Tennessee’s strong safety through the 2020 season, and though he has his limitations as a player, this deal should keep Vaccaro in beneficial situations. The Saints seemed to have visions of Vaccaro using his athleticism to turn into Eric Berry, but Vaccaro never took that leap into an all-purpose safety. He’s best as a strong safety with the occasional athleticism to jump into coverage on bigger receivers, like a poor man’s Landon Collins. With Kevin Byard at free safety, Vaccaro can play that exact role.
The deal: Four years, $36 million
The Titans needed a slot receiver to play alongside Corey Davis, but I didn’t expect them to shell out $9 million per season for a player who was possibly the fifth option when everybody was healthy in Tampa Bay. Humphries is an undrafted free agent, which is the case for many slot receivers, but the Titans are paying him like he’s a precious asset instead of trusting that they’ll be able to find the next Humphries on a rookie deal, which is what the big brother Patriots would generally do in the same situation.
Over the past four years, Humphries has turned just 11 percent of the routes he has run in the slot into receptions, which is the lowest rate in football among wideouts with 100 slot targets or more in that time. There are things to like — he has generally stayed healthy, which can be a rare essence for slot guys — but Humphries has fumbled six times on 376 touches. He has caught 191 of 270 passes the past three seasons, which is good for a 70.7 percent catch rate, but the NFL’s Next Gen Stats suggest that an average receiver would have caught … 190.7 of those passes. He’s a decent wideout, but he hasn’t exhibited the sort of ceiling that would make this deal more tantalizing.
The deal: Four years, $44.5 million
The Bills were a mess at center last season, when they turned to former Bengal Russell Bodine and found that there was a reason Cincinnati didn’t keep him around. What’s interesting is that general manager Brandon Beane presumably addressed his hole at the pivot by signing Spencer Long to a three-year, $12.6 million deal earlier this offseason, but he has made a far larger investment by giving Morse a record annual average salary for a center, topping the $10.5 million figure Ryan Jensen hit last offseason.
Long has just $1.2 million in guarantees in his deal, so it’s entirely possible that the Bills plan to use him as a backup or utility lineman. He has also spent time at guard, and the Bills could very well move Long off center and have him take over for free agent John Miller. Morse was a tackle in college, and this sort of deal is more typically tackle money, but it’s rare for a team to hand out a deal such as this and expect a player to change positions in the process.
Morse should be a huge aid for Josh Allen in terms of helping to set protections in Brian Daboll’s offense. The only real concern with him is injuries, given that he missed nine games in 2017 with a foot injury and five in 2018 with a concussion. If the Bills carved out sufficient protections within the guarantees to protect against injuries, it’ll be an even better deal for Buffalo.
The deal: Four years, $88 million with $50.1 million guaranteed
In the end, the Jaguars were the only viable landing spot for the former Super Bowl MVP. In a different year, Foles might have had a bevy of possible suitors, but five teams drafted quarterbacks in the first round of last year’s draft, and somewhere between two and four quarterbacks are going to come off the board in Round 1 this April. When the Broncos traded for Joe Flacco and the Giants dug their head further into the Meadowlands sod in support of Eli Manning, the Jaguars were the only open chair left.
You would figure that this might have earned the Jaguars a relative bargain, but despite seemingly negotiating against themselves and with no other starting jobs currently available, Jacksonville needed to top $50 million in guarantees to reel Foles into their lineup. In a league in which winning teams are generally built around two quarterback archetypes — the above-average passer on a rookie deal and the true superstar making big bucks — the Jags are one of the few teams trying to win with something in the middle.
That hasn’t been a winning formula; the only veteran to win a Super Bowl in this range since the new collective bargaining agreement was signed is Eli Manning in 2011. (I’m not counting Tom Brady, who could clearly command far more on the free market than he’s received from the Patriots, if so inclined.) Before him, you have to go back to Brad Johnson and the 2002 Buccaneers.
It’s difficult to see a great fit between Foles and his new offense, even given that former Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo will be taking the reins as offensive coordinator in Jacksonville this season. Tom Coughlin has wanted to build an offense around running the football, avoiding giveaways and trusting his defense to make plays. DeFilippo, notably, was just fired in the middle of his lone season with the Vikings for not running the football frequently enough to satisfy Mike Zimmer.
Turnovers are going to be an issue. During his two seasons in Philadelphia with Doug Pederson, Foles threw six interceptions on 296 attempts, which isn’t a problem. His ability to protect the football wasn’t quite as impressive. Foles fumbled once every 33 touches during his two-year return to Philly, which was behind only Lamar Jackson among passers with 300 touches or more. His career rate is better, but is still below average for a quarterback who rarely runs with the football. Few bosses are more sensitive about fumbles than the guy running things in Jacksonville.
Foles also threw nearly 88 percent of his passes out of the pistol or shotgun during his two seasons with the Eagles, one of the highest rates in football. The former Air Raid quarterback can play under center, but it doesn’t work to his strengths. Are the Jags going to mold their offense to Foles? If they do, will that further stifle the running game Coughlin wanted to foster by using the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft on Leonard Fournette? There might be a way to make this all work, but this is hardly a plug-and-play solution in terms of scheme.
The other thing to worry about with Foles is health. The 30-year-old has fallen prey to injuries throughout his pro career. In 2012, Foles broke his hand after six starts. In 2013, a concussion knocked Foles out of his second start and cost him a week before the Arizona product returned for a blistering-hot second half. The following year, Foles fractured his clavicle in his eighth start of the season. The veteran was benched after nine games with the Rams, his longest consecutive stretch of starts as a pro. The Jaguars are paying Foles like he’ll start all 16 games, but little evidence says the former Andy Reid draft pick can pull that off.
The Jaguars can feel good about marking an end to the Blake Bortles era. Foles is an unquestionable upgrade on the oft-frustrating Bortles, whom the Jags spent years propping up before finally giving in to reality during the 2018 campaign. Most quarterbacks would have been, though, and they wouldn’t have cost anywhere near as much as Foles did.
Even if we assume that this is a two-year deal in the $51 million range, which is usually how the Jags structure their free-agent signings, Foles is going to be an expensive addition at a time when Jacksonville will be trying to re-sign players like Yannick Ngakoue and Jalen Ramsey to extensions. Part of free agency is identifying the right talent to bring in, but a huge component is identifying the possible market for those players and bidding accordingly. The Jags didn’t execute the latter with this Foles deal.
The deal: Three years, $42 million
Given the soft safety market of 2018 and the sheer volume of talented free safeties on the market, I figured we would see the market move relatively slowly and some of the players would have to settle for one-year deals. Mathieu had to take a one-year pact from the Texans last year at $7 million, but after a bounce-back season, he isn’t settling for anything. We’re still waiting to see the specific guarantee structure of this deal, but it’s safe to assume that Mathieu came away with essentially two guaranteed years in this contract, just as Sammy Watkins did on his three-year, $48 million deal last offseason.
There’s an interesting fit for Mathieu on the Chiefs roster, and things could change based on the other moves Brett Veach makes this offseason. At this point, we know the 26-year-old Mathieu is a player who is going to be generally effective when healthy, even if he probably isn’t going to hit the lofty heights of that 2015 season. Mathieu still has very good instincts as a safety, and though the two ACL tears have sapped a bit of his athleticism, he’s probably still good enough to fill in as a competent cornerback in the slot, especially given how ineffective the Chiefs have been at corner in recent seasons.
The only real concern with Mathieu is injury, given that the LSU superstar has those two torn ACLs in his past. Mathieu also missed pro time with thumb and shoulder injuries and wasn’t able to make it through a complete 16-game season in any of his first four campaigns. Mathieu has subsequently run off 32 consecutive games, which is certainly a promising sign, but the broader history suggests that there’s more risk here than there is for most other safeties.
Simultaneously, the Chiefs traded for Kendall Fuller last year in hopes of playing him as a cornerback across the field, and a subpar season suggested that Fuller’s best role might be as a permanent slot corner. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has nothing in the cupboard at corner with Steven Nelson and Orlando Scandrick as free agents, and you might understand the logic of signing a good safety as opposed to paying up for a mediocre cornerback in a market that has plenty of the latter. While the Chiefs could very well have waited out the market and seen which free safety was left standing, Mathieu and Lamarcus Joyner were the only two you would want to count on to also fill in at cornerback on a regular basis.
This can all change if the Chiefs use the Mathieu signing as a pretense to move on from Eric Berry, who had the highest average annual salary for a safety in the NFL before Monday. Berry played all of three regular-season games in the first two years of his record deal, thanks to a torn Achilles tendon suffered in Week 1 of 2017 and heel pain that kept Berry sidelined for virtually all of the 2018 campaign. The Chiefs already cut one stalwart in Justin Houston, and they could move on from Berry this offseason, though it wouldn’t be pretty. Kansas City would likely designate Berry as a post-June 1 release, which would create $9.6 million in cap space while adding $8 million in dead money to the Chiefs’ 2020 cap.
With Berry and Mathieu in the lineup together, the Chiefs have two safeties capable of playing in the box, the slot or the deep middle. They also have the most expensive combo of safeties in NFL history on a defense that has already invested meaningfully at inside linebacker in Anthony Hitchens, who wasn’t effective in his first season with the Chiefs. The Chiefs cut Houston and are reportedly shopping franchised end Dee Ford because he isn’t a great fit for Spagnuolo’s 4-3 defense. Their best defensive lineman is Chris Jones, who will move to defensive tackle in the 4-3. At some point, the Chiefs need to do something about their lack of talent on the outside. You get the feeling that another move might be coming here, and that should inform how the Mathieu deal fits.
The deal: Four years, $36 million
We don’t have the guarantees in for this deal, but assuming that about 50 percent of the contract is guaranteed, this is one of the more shocking contracts from day one of free agency. Both Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia were in New England in 2015, when Coleman bounced to the Patriots after being cut by the Vikings out of camp and played in 10 games. By 2017, while Patricia was Pats defensive coordinator, he still couldn’t keep the Pats from trading Coleman at the end of camp to the Seahawks for a 2018 seventh-round pick. (Alternatively, he didn’t think Coleman was worth keeping on the roster.) Quinn, who has never plugged his hole at cornerback across from Darius Slay, apparently either didn’t get a chance to top Seattle’s offer or didn’t think Coleman was worth more than a seventh-round pick.
Now, two years later, the same two administrators think Coleman is worth $9 million per season. To be fair, Coleman has emerged as a good — possibly even very good — slot cornerback for the Seahawks the past two seasons. The Lions have been an absolute disaster at cornerback outside of Darius Slay, and the league’s moving towards copious usage of 11 personnel, which is one of the reasons the Ravens gave Tavon Young a three-year, $25.8 million extension earlier this week. Coleman was a monster athlete coming out of school, so there’s upside here.
At the same time, after Coleman impressed in the slot in 2017, Pete Carroll kept him as the Seahawks’ nickelback and preferred to start rookie fifth-rounder Tre Flowers on the edge. I’d be a little anxious about Coleman’s ability to take regular snaps as a sideline corner, and if he’s exclusive to the slot, Coleman isn’t worth $9 million per season. He also spent two seasons playing with Carroll, who might be the best defensive backs coach in the league, and Coleman won’t be able to take Carroll with him to Detroit.
Again, I think about how the Patriots approach their cornerback situation. How often has Bill Belichick paid two cornerbacks starting-level money on multiyear deals over the past few seasons? The Lions unquestionably hired Patricia and Quinn in the hope that they could mold the next Trey Flowers or find the next Justin Coleman buried on someone’s roster. This isn’t that.
The deal: Three years, $18.8 million
The Bills needed a tight end to serve as a weapon for Josh Allen and his generally bereft receiving corps. What they went for was Kroft, who has primarily been a blocking tight end in his pro career. The 6-foot-6, 252-pound Rutgers product did catch 42 passes for 404 yards and six touchdowns during the 2017 season, so there might be some untapped potential here, but nobody on the planet who hasn’t thrown a cruise for themselves is likely to consistently catch a touchdown once every six receptions. Indeed, Kroft has one touchdown across 25 other receptions in his three other pro campaigns.
This deal could swing in either direction based on the guarantee. If Buffalo guaranteed Kroft $7 million or so and it’s a one-year deal to see what he might do in a larger role, it’s a reasonable bet. If the Bills guaranteed Kroft $14 million and plan on standing pat at the position with him alongside Jason Croom, they’re not doing Allen any favors.
The deal: One year, $2 million
Frank Gore is 35 years old. You would figure we’re at the point where it’s basically Super Bowl-or-bust for a guy who might very well end up in Canton after he retires. Plenty of playoff contenders need a backup running back who can hold his own in pass protection and provide a veteran voice in the locker room. So, hours into the legal tampering period, Gore signs a one-year, $2 million deal with … the Bills?
It’s possible that Gore didn’t have much of a market and simply took the best offer available, but you would figure he might be better off going the C.J. Anderson route and waiting for someone to get injured before landing a late-season job for a contender. Instead, he’s off to a Bills team in the middle of a rebuild and coming off a 6-10 season. The Bills have also suggested that they expect to keep LeSean McCoy for another season, so it’s not even as if Gore will have a path to a particularly large role within the offense.
From the Bills’ perspective, it’s difficult to make sense of this one as well. The 31-year-old McCoy will be a free agent after the season, and last year’s No. 2 back was Chris Ivory, who will likely be released after Gore signs in Buffalo. Their starting quarterback is 22-year-old Josh Allen, and most of their current other offensive starters for 2019 are 25 or younger. Why not go after a young back who might break out given a chance in a larger role? The Bills can still draft a back, but they’re not going to get many touches behind Gore and McCoy. Gore was an effective player for the Dolphins last season, and he would make sense on this deal for a likely playoff team, but it’s a very strange short-term addition for a Bills offense that needs to think longer-term.
The deal: Three years, $28.5 million with $17 million guaranteed
I like this move for the Jets, who get a weapon at a position of need for Sam Darnold. The Jets are likely going to start 2019 with Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa as their two starting receivers, and while I would be concerned about each of those guys for different reasons, the Jets needed a slot receiver to take over for free agent Jermaine Kearse. The Jets could have gone for a bigger wideout and moved Enunwa into the slot on a full-time basis, but when I look at the guys who are available on the outside in this free-agent class, I don’t blame them for taking their chances on an interior wideout.
Crowder can be a quarterback’s best friend. As Washington’s slot receiver, he consistently managed to create easy throws for Kirk Cousins. From 2015 to 2017, Crowder caught 131 passes for 1,615 yards out of the slot, both of which ranked sixth in the NFL in that time frame. If anything, Washington probably could have gone to Crowder more, given that he was targeted on just 18.2 percent of his routes out of the slot. Of the 27 wideouts who ran 100 or more routes out of the slot, only six were targeted less frequently than Crowder.
However, there are two very meaningful concerns that might follow Crowder to New York. One is injury. Crowder has been bothered in two different seasons by nagging hamstring injuries. Last year, he suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 4, and missed two months of action. He had an 87-yard game against the Giants in Week 14, but most of that came on a 79-yard touchdown off a drag route with some sloppy tackling while his team was down 40-8 in the fourth quarter. 2018 was mostly a lost season.
The other issue is fumbling, and Crowder needs to fix it to become an efficient player. The 25-year-old has fumbled 12 times on 323 pro touches, which include 86 punt returns. That’s one fumble every 26.9 touches, which is the highest rate in the league among players with 300 touches or more since 2015. Crowder didn’t fumble once during his abbreviated 2018 campaign, which was a promising start, but he has to keep that up to justify this deal.
The deal: Five years, $80-85 million
Well, you can’t call Flowers underrated anymore. After being regarded as a quiet superstar around the NFL over the past couple of seasons, he cashed in with a massive deal on Monday, signing a five-year deal with the Lions in the ballpark of $17 million per year. We’re still waiting on guarantees, but the 25-year-old was the best pass-rusher left after four teams used their respective franchise tags to take edge defenders off the market. Even in an offseason with a draft class full of pass-rushing talent, Flowers was going to get paid.
In reuniting Flowers with former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, the Lions are adding a pass-rusher who perpetually looks to be on the cusp of a dominant campaign. After missing virtually all of his rookie season, he racked up 21 sacks from 2016 to 2018, which is 35th in the NFL. Over that same time frame, though, Flowers has knocked down opposing passers 59 times, which is 20th and right in line with the franchise-tagged DeMarcus Lawrence (59) and Jadeveon Clowney (55).
When you throw in the postseason, Flowers has generated 26.5 sacks on 81 knockdowns across 55 games. Historically, pass-rushers will convert about 45 percent of their knockdowns into sacks, and if Flowers sacked quarterbacks at that rate, he would have 36.5 sacks over that three-year span. Edge rushers who underperform their knockdown totals typically regress toward the mean, and we’ve seen Flowers come up short only twice in three years, but the Lions are paying the former fourth-round pick like he’s already the superstar those knockdowns numbers hint he will become.
The Patriots will get by without Flowers, as we know from 18 years of seeing New England shed talented defenders under Bill Belichick, but they probably need to add at least one more defensive lineman to their roster, even after trading for Michael Bennett. With five picks in the first three rounds, the Pats will likely use at least one of those selections to address the edge. They’ll hope for more out of 2017 third-rounder Derek Rivers, who was inactive during the Super Bowl win over the Rams.
Because the Patriots always manage to find a solution on defense, there’s a perception that targeting players the Pats let go in free agency can be a fool’s errand. In a vacuum, there’s truth to this with any young talent: If the Patriots really thought Flowers was irreplaceable, they would franchise their edge rusher or sign him to an extension and push someone else off the roster. The Patriots manage their cap as well as anyone else in the league, so they could certainly find a way to afford Flowers if they felt he was essential to their chances in 2019.
Is it true that teams that sign young starters away from the Patriots at the end of their rookie deals are throwing their money at players Belichick doesn’t really want? Yes and no. The Cardinals have enjoyed having Chandler Jones on their roster, although it’s worth noting the Patriots traded their star edge rusher to Arizona in lieu of losing him in free agency. Asante Samuel went on to have a lengthy, successful second act with the Eagles and Falcons. Logan Ryan has been fine for the Titans.
On the other hand, there are plenty of Patriots who haven’t lived up to expectations elsewhere, including Malcolm Butler, who is Ryan’s teammate in Tennessee. Jamie Collins isn’t an every-down linebacker for the Browns. Patrick Chung only lasted one year in Philadelphia before returning to the Patriots. Defensive backs like Eugene Wilson and Brandon Meriweather didn’t have the same sort of impact outside of Foxborough. Relying on free agency to add talent to your roster is a risky decision in most cases. It’s no different when adding players from the Patriots.
As always, though, there appears to be a gap between what Belichick does and what his subordinates do when they get jobs elsewhere. Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn both come from New England, and yet, as we suggested in previewing the offseason, here they are paying top-of-the-market money for a pass-rusher Belichick doesn’t feel to be worth keeping around at that price tag. Flowers would have to turn into Khalil Mack or Von Miller to provide excess value on this contract.
I don’t think I can be too harsh on the Lions for making this move, though. Flowers is still young and talented enough to justify the expenditure, and the Lions absolutely, positively needed to add a top edge rusher. Patricia’s defense finished 29th in pass defense DVOA a year ago, and there aren’t any great cornerbacks on the market. Flowers probably won’t live up to this price tag, but he’ll also probably be good enough that the Lions won’t regret paying a premium to bring him on board.
The deal: Six years, $84 million with $45 million guaranteed
Once Collins hit the free-agent market, it wasn’t a shock to think that he might end up staying in the NFC East and signing with Washington. I picked it as my most plausible destination for Collins last week. The organization has stockpiled an Alabama defenders, with Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Ryan Anderson and Shaun Dion Hamilton all on the roster before Washington traded for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in midseason. The former Packers defender didn’t make much of a mark in Washington, and breakout safety D.J. Swearinger was cut by the team for his comments on social media in December, leaving Washington bereft at safety. Oh, and just for good measure, Collins chose No. 21 in New York to honor his idol, former Washington safety Sean Taylor, who was tragically killed at the age of 24.
What is shocking, though, is the money. Safety is the deepest position in this free-agent market, and while most of the options available are free safeties, box safeties typically don’t get paid as much as center fielders. Collins just blew that line of thinking to smithereens. His $14 million average annual salary is now the highest for any safety in football, topping Eric Berry‘s $13 million. Among box safeties, while Kam Chancellor‘s extension was for $12 million per season, the former Seahawks star is now practically retired. Reshad Jones is more of an interchangeable piece, but in terms of pure strong safeties, the next-largest active deal is probably Tony Jefferson, who is at $8.5 million per season. This is an enormous leap for the position at first glance.
If you’re going to make a huge bet in free agency, though, you would want to target a young player with a steady track of record success. Enter Collins, who only turned 25 in January and already has three Pro Bowls and one first-team All-Pro nod in four NFL seasons. The 2016 season still stands out as his best campaign by a comfortable margin, given that he produced more interceptions, sacks and tackles for loss than Collins did over the subsequent two seasons combined, but the former second-rounder was better in 2018 than he was in 2017.
Is Collins just a “box safety” in a league built more and more around the pass? I don’t think it’s that simple. He isn’t the sort of Earl Thomas-esque player you can just stick into the deep middle of the field to wipe away seam and post routes. He’s not a Lamarcus Joyner or Tyrann Mathieu you’ll want to line up in the slot against No. 3 wideouts on a regular basis. That’s all true.
I also think he’s something more than just an eighth man in the box as a strong safety; Collins’s 218-pound frame lets him run with tight ends other safeties can’t physically compete against. He’s a sound tackler and someone who limits completions and throws over the middle of the field. Teams can stretch him with wheel routes out of the backfield and beat him when he’s isolated in the slot, but he has the playmaking ability to create takeaways when quarterbacks and offensive weapons are careless with the football. He can absolutely be a tone-setter. I don’t know if that’s worth $14 million per season, but few players this accomplished hit the market at such a young age.
Collins made it here only because the Giants thought he wasn’t worth keeping around, which seems even more curious today. General manager Dave Gettleman could have franchised him for the 2019 season at $11.2 million, and even if the team didn’t think Collins was a long-term building block for the defense, the Giants could have used the tag to explore the trade market for their starting safety. Given that he will average more than the tag number on a long-term deal, it’s pretty clear he would have had some semblance of a market. It’s a little difficult to figure how a GM who thought a running back was worth the second overall pick in a draft didn’t simultaneously think a box safety was worth paying a premium to keep around, but Collins will get to meet Saquon Barkley and the rest of his old teammates twice per season for the next few years.
The deal: Three years, $21 million
It’s difficult to find a silver lining in Cincinnati’s move to re-sign Hart, who was cut by the Giants last year amid concerns that he had quit on the team. (Hart would later deny those claims.) The 24-year-old cleared waivers and went to injured reserve before signing a one-year deal during the offseason with the Bengals, who eventually installed the Florida State product as their starting right tackle.
Here’s where would I normally say things went well and led the Bengals to sign Hart to a long-term deal. That isn’t really what happened. Hart appears to have played pretty poorly in his debut season with the Bengals. While he stayed healthy and started all 16 games for the first time in his pro career, the former seventh-round pick allowed 11.5 sacks, per Stats LLC. Hart also committed 14 penalties, which tied him for fourth in the league. Nine of those penalties were false starts, which you can spin in either direction; a Hart supporter could suggest that Hart will cut out the false starts with experience, while a detractor might find it frustrating that Hart can’t manage to line up and get off the snap on time on a regular basis.
Either way, Hart hasn’t shown much suggesting he’s even a competent NFL tackle. Incoming offensive line coach Jim Turner hand-waved away the concerns about sacks and pressures by talking about how Hart has played with passion, but the bottoms of NFL rosters and practice squads are full of players who have passion. It’s not hard to find a player who cares. The Bengals are paying Hart to be an effective NFL lineman, and he simply isn’t one. I can’t imagine that Cincinnati guaranteed more than one season to Hart as part of this three-year pact. Since he is just 24, the Bengals would be in position to keep Hart around if he does break out, but this doesn’t appear to solve Cincinnati’s offensive line woes. If anything, the signing solidifies them.
The deal: Four years, $66.8 million with $36.8 million guaranteed
Patriots coach Bill Belichick owes Brown a solid for filling in at left tackle when rookie first-round pick Isaiah Wynn went down with a torn Achilles. Brown promptly played through injuries and excelled en route to a Super Bowl title. Brown, in response, owes Belichick a few million dollars. A year ago, he was an injured right tackle whom the 49ers sent to the Patriots in the middle of the draft along with the 145th pick for the 95th selection.
Now, Brown has the highest average annual salary for an offensive lineman in NFL history at $16.7 million, topping the $16 million previous Patriots left tackle Nate Solder netted from the Giants a year ago. Belichick will do just fine; the Patriots will get back Wynn for 2019, and as CBS Sports’ Will Brinson noted on Twitter, the Patriots will likely net a compensatory pick in the 96-100 range for the privilege of renting Brown for one season. Belichick is good at this, huh?
The 25-year-old Brown, who makes other NFL players look like fans at 6-foot-8 and 380 pounds, was going to get paid. After Donovan Smith re-signed with the Bucs before free agency began, Brown was the only viable left tackle left on the market in a league in which 10 teams annually have left tackles who keep their offensive coordinator up praying at night. It’s a bit of a surprise to see him get a record deal after just one season playing left tackle, though, when you consider that the far more experienced Solder got a smaller deal and then didn’t impress in his debut season away from New England.
It’s even more surprising to see Brown head to Oakland, if only because the Raiders invested in tackles last offseason. In his first draft with the Raiders, Jon Gruden surprisingly used the 15th pick on fellow 6-foot-8 tackle Kolton Miller, who started all 16 games at left tackle. Then, with the first pick in the third round, Gruden drafted North Carolina A&T product Brandon Parker, who started 12 games and took over as the team’s right tackle.
Things didn’t go great. According to Stats LLC, Miller allowed 13 sacks, which is one of the largest numbers I can find for a tackle in recent memory by that company’s analysis. He also committed eight penalties, while Parker chipped in with 10 penalties and 8.5 sacks allowed. They looked the way rookie tackles typically look.
Now, the plan has changed. Brown’s salary dictates that the Raiders see him as their left tackle, given that the only right tackle in the league who makes more than $9.5 million per year is Lane Johnson, whose deal has him on an average annual salary at $11.3 million. That would seem to move Miller to the right side, where he spent his first two seasons at UCLA. You don’t typically want to draft right tackles in the middle of the first round, so this move indirectly caps how valuable Miller can theoretically be while also giving up on his development as a left tackle after one season. Parker, who didn’t win rave reviews from Raiders fans, will likely move to the bench as the team’s swing tackle.
One of the reasons those rookie tackles didn’t develop well is my biggest concern for Brown in Oakland. In New England, Brown’s positional coach was Dante Scarnecchia, who probably deserves to be in the Hall of Fame for what he has accomplished. (As ESPN’s Adam Schefter pointed out, Scarnecchia probably deserves a cut of this deal, too.) Scarnecchia is right up there with Bill Callahan of Washington among the best offensive line coaches in football.
Brown’s coach in Oakland is Tom Cable, who was a disaster during his time in Seattle with everyone from veteran additions to high draft picks to undrafted free agents. Cable might be one of the league’s worst offensive line coaches, to say nothing of his abhorrent off-field behavior in years past. Given that Brown took a big leap forward as a player once he hooked up with Scarnecchia in New England, it’s fair to wonder how he’ll look after a year or two of working with Cable in Oakland. The guy who excelled for the Patriots last season is worth this sort of money, but I’m not sure the Raiders have the coaching staff to coax that version of Brown out in Oakland and Las Vegas.
The deal: Three years, $30 million with $10 million guaranteed
The Eagles found their replacement for Tim Jernigan by signing Jackson, who went from making the Pro Bowl in 2017 to being benched in 2018 and eventually cut by the Jaguars this offseason. Jackson, who was a standout during Denver’s run to the Super Bowl in 2015, will hope to rekindle his level of play alongside Fletcher Cox in Philadelphia.
While Jackson is taking Jernigan’s salary slot and place on the roster, he might realistically also be part of the calculus in replacing Michael Bennett, who is an excellent interior pass-rusher. Jackson isn’t quite at Bennett’s level, but the 29-year-old has consistently been effective as a pro when allowed to penetrate and get after the quarterback. Cox is always going to be the focal point of those pressures, but if Jackson plays well, it will allow Cox to rest more often on passing downs than he did in 2018. Jackson produced more quarterback knockdowns in 2018 (12) than in his more celebrated 2017 season (11), but he was unluckier; the 11-knockdown season produced eight sacks, while the 12-knockdown campaign generated 3.5 sacks.
Jackson will need to keep up his strength as an interior defender in a division in which he’ll face the run-heavy attacks of the Cowboys and Giants and a Washington team with Brandon Scherff at right guard. The Jaguars got much better against the run after trading for Marcell Dareus during that 2017 campaign, and while Jackson isn’t a minus run defender, it’s the weaker element to his game of the two.
Realistically, there’s not a ton of risk here for the Eagles, who will likely be able to get out of this contract after one season if Jackson doesn’t pan out. With three top-60 picks, they can address their remaining points of relative weakness (running back, wideout, cornerback) in the draft. You would figure they don’t have much more to do in unrestricted free agency, but general manager Howie Roseman always seems to have a surprise for us.
The deal: One year, $4.5 million
It’s no surprise that a Lions organization run by ex-Patriots such as Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn would go after the longtime New England slot receiver, who was cut by the Dolphins last week. Amendola’s deal didn’t make sense for a Dolphins team that was cap-strapped and simultaneously gave Albert Wilson a longer deal, but the 33-year-old Amendola ended up staying relatively healthy and played 654 offensive snaps in Miami. That’s the most he has played in a single season over the course of his 10-year career, and the first time he has topped 600 snaps since the 2010 season, when he was still on the Rams.
The Lions do need help in the slot after trading Golden Tate to the Eagles last year. After the trade, Detroit’s leading slot receiver was Bruce Ellington, who caught 15 passes out of the slot despite not even being on the Lions roster until a couple of weeks after the Tate trade took place. Amendola should fit right into that role, and Detroit won’t need him to be an every-down wideout with Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones on the roster.
On the other hand, the fact that the Lions already are committed to Golladay and Jones means this is a lot to give a third wideout for a team with holes all over its defense. This is a market deep with slot receivers — Amendola, Adam Humphries, Cole Beasley and Jamison Crowder are all out there — and the slot is a position in which teams have typically been able to find useful contributors in the draft and even among undrafted free agents.
It’s tough to count on Amendola to stay healthy for any length of time, even given that he played 15 games in each of the past two seasons. After replacing offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter with Darrell Bevell, the Lions might not be in 11 personnel as frequently as they were a year ago. I can see why the Lions made this move, but it’s also a lot easier to envision a scenario in which it doesn’t go well than one in which it wildly exceeds expectations.
Sunday, March 10
Jets get: G Kelechi Osemele, 2019 sixth-round pick
Raiders get: 2019 fifth-round pick
Jets grade: B+
Raiders grade: C
The Raiders got to bask in the glory of winning the Antonio Brown trade for about 12 hours or so before making a curious decision by dealing Osemele to the Jets. For a team with no cap concerns even after trading for Brown and giving him a new deal, it’s surprising to see them move on from a Pro Bowl-caliber guard with no obvious replacement on the roster. Given the presence of Tom Cable as offensive line coach, expect the Raiders to replace Osemele with a basketball player or a defensive lineman. Jon Feliciano, who filled in at guard this season, is a free agent.
To be fair, the Raiders might point out that the Osemele, who was arguably the most physically dominant lineman in football in 2015 and 2016, hasn’t been the same over the past two seasons. In 2017, new Raiders offensive coordinator Todd Downing moved the team to a heavy dose of outside zone, playing against his line’s strengths. Last season, Osemele missed three games with a knee injury, played through a reaggravation of that injury, and then was out for two games in December with a toe ailment. He wasn’t 100 percent for most of the campaign, and per STATS, LLC data, he allowed four sacks in 11 games.
If the Raiders think Osemele’s injury issues are going to continue to be a problem, they probably wouldn’t be enthused to pay the two years and $21 million left on his deal. Enter the Jets, who have more than $100 million in cap space and a dismal offensive line. There’s very little risk here for general manager Mike Maccagnan, who is moving down about one round in the late rounds of the draft and adding a player with Pro Bowl upside and an unguaranteed contract. The Jets suddenly have one of the better guard duos in the league with Osemele and Brian Winters, although they probably still need to add a right tackle.
My only issue from New York’s perspective is figuring out their scheme. Adam Gase’s best offenses have come when his running game is built around the outside zone. Granted, those teams included Peyton Manning at quarterback in Denver, but his best stretch running the football in Miami was with Jay Ajayi running heavy doses of wide zone. Osemele can block that just fine if he’s healthy, but it’s like driving a bulldozer to the grocery store. The former Ravens standout is always going to look best as a mauler in more physical run schemes. New offensive line coach Frank Pollack spent years with the Cowboys under Bill Callahan before spending the 2018 season under former Gase assistant Bill Lazor in Cincinnati, where he installed plenty of outside zone looks for Joe Mixon.
Gase built an effective rushing attack around Frank Gore a year ago without relying as heavily upon outside zone, so it wouldn’t shock me if we saw the Jets running more duo after acquiring Osemele. In a thin market for guards, even if the Jets don’t play to Osemele’s strengths, they’ve still made a significant upgrade at one of the weakest positions on their roster.
Raiders get: WR Antonio Brown
Steelers get: 2019 third- and fifth-round picks
Raiders grade: A-
Steelers grade: C-
I had quite a bit to say about the AB trade, so read the full analysis here.
Saturday, March 9
The deal: Two years, $7 million
Generally, a rebuilding Dolphins team should be going after younger talent and avoiding free agency. This deal is an exception for a couple of reasons. One is that Allen was cut by the Patriots, so he won’t impact the draft pick compensation the Dolphins might be in line to receive if Ja’Wuan James and Cameron Wake sign elsewhere.
The other is that the Miami really isn’t paying that much for a block-first, low-end starting tight end, especially when you consider that the Ravens paid Nick Boyle nearly twice as much in terms of annual salary. Allen should be a bigger part of the passing game after catching just 13 passes over two seasons in New England, where new Dolphins coach Brian Flores and offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea saw him in practice on a daily basis. He’s also an excellent fit in terms of skill set alongside Mike Gesicki, who the team will hope breaks out as the team’s move tight end in his second season.
The deal: One year, $2.8 million with $1.6 million guaranteed
The Chiefs need a running back with Kareem Hunt and Spencer Ware no longer on the roster, and my guess is that Hyde will do just fine in Kansas City if the Chiefs turn to him in a limited role. At the same time, though, they have managed to rotate everyone from Hunt to Charcandrick West to Jamaal Charles to Damien Williams as their primary running back during the Andy Reid era without losing much efficiency. Hyde can succeed in Kansas City because just about everybody the team lines up — short of Knile Davis — does well.
I’m not sure the Chiefs need to devote nearly $3 million to Hyde to find a competent running back to either compete with Williams or take over as the primary back. I also understand that they might want to add a veteran to their backfield, but you would figure they would want someone with above-average receiving ability given how frequently Reid likes to throw to his backs. Hyde’s only year with significant receiving production was with Kyle Shanahan in 2017, but the former first-round pick was one of the least efficient receiving backs in football that season for San Francisco.
Both Williams and Hyde are likely to make the roster, and I would expect the Chiefs to go after a long-term solution like Damien Harris in the middle rounds of this year’s draft. Williams can play special teams, but Hyde didn’t take a single special-teams snap in either of his stops last season. As ESPN’s Matthew Berry pointed out on Twitter, the second back in Reid’s offense doesn’t typically have a big role from week to week. Hyde basically needs to make a significant difference as a rusher to justify his roster spot here, and given Kansas City’s incredible passing attack and excellent offensive line, they could plug in plenty of options to succeed in that role.
Friday, March 8
The deal: Two years, $12.5 million with $5.25 million guaranteed
With the Rams unlikely to re-sign free agent Lamarcus Joyner, their list of potential replacements at free safety was vast, especially after Tashaun Gipson hit the market earlier Friday. As a conference champion in a desirable city with cap space, the Rams are going to have the lead on signing just about any ring-chasing veteran who hits the market. It’s no surprise they ended up with Weddle, and he won’t be the last solid over-30 player to join their roster this offseason.
Off the field, Weddle makes plenty of sense for the Rams. General manager Les Snead established a habit of using his own draft picks to trade for talented players while recouping some of the missing selections by letting his own veterans leave in free agency for compensatory picks. The Rams could be in line for as many as four compensatory picks if Joyner, Ndamukong Suh, Rodger Saffold, and Dante Fowler Jr. sign elsewhere.
Since Weddle was released by the Ravens, the 34-year-old won’t count against the compensatory formula, so he can’t cancel out any of the picks the Rams might gain for their four free agents if they move on. As the elder statesman of the safety class, he was the guy most likely to take a short-term deal, and this contact probably represents a one-year pact with an unguaranteed second season. That’s ideal for the Rams, too.
On the field, it’s fair to say the Ravens thought Weddle wasn’t the player he was a couple of years ago, given that they turned down the option to pay him $6.5 million for 2019. It has to be concerning that Weddle failed to stuff the stat sheet the way he had in years past. The six-time Pro Bowler failed to force a takeaway for only the second time in his 11 seasons as a starter and defensed a mere three passes after racking up 21 defenses over the previous two years. The Ravens ranked second in DVOA on short throws but only 16th on deeper attempts, where you would figure Weddle might have had more of an impact.
At the same time, though, Weddle was a starting safety on the league’s third-best defense by DVOA, and it wasn’t as if he was an obvious weakness. Weddle still has excellent instincts, and on a unit with starting cornerbacks renowned for jumping routes or coming off their man to try to force an interception, he is a solid last line of defense. Don Martindale had a superb debut season as Ravens defensive coordinator in 2018, but Rams DC Wade Phillips seems to make just about every player he gets better. The last time Weddle failed to record a takeaway was during his final season with the Chargers, and he promptly picked off 10 passes for the Ravens over the next two years.
The only thing you might say is that the Rams would occasionally slide Joyner down into the slot and play him as a cornerback against wideouts, something they can’t really ask Weddle to do at this point of his career. There’s always a chance that he returns from the offseason and isn’t the same guy — remember that John Lynch made the Pro Bowl for the Broncos at 36 in 2007 and wasn’t able to make the Patriots’ roster or catch on anywhere else the following August — but it’s more likely that the Rams get solid, smart safety play in their backfield next season.
Patriots get: DE Michael Bennett, 2020 seventh-round pick
Eagles get: 2020 fifth-round pick
Patriots grade: A
Eagles grade: B-
It seemed almost inevitable that Bennett would eventually make his way to New England, and after Bill Belichick traded for one year of Martellus Bennett in 2016 and promptly won a Super Bowl, he’ll hope to do the same with the tight end’s older brother. To get a pass-rusher as talented and flexible as Bennett for what amounts to a swap of late-round picks in 2020 is a classic Belichick trade picking up a valuable player for what amounts to pennies on the dollar. This is Belichick’s 2019 equivalent of the Trent Brown trade, when he swapped a fourth-round pick for a fifth-rounder and ended up with a Super Bowl-winning left tackle.
Make no mistakes: Bennett is still an upper-echelon pass-rusher. He finished the 2018 season with nine sacks, 15 tackles for loss, and a whopping 30 quarterback knockdowns, with the latter coming fourth in the NFL. The 33-year-old has typically underperformed his knockdown totals as a pro, turning about 35 percent of his quarterback hits into sacks, but he is quite clearly still a disruptive defender.
Bennett is far more productive than players like Jadeveon Clowney and Olivier Vernon, and with unguaranteed base salaries of $6.2 million and $7 million over the next two seasons, he’ll make less than either of those guys will bring home in 2019 alone. He’s going to be a massive help for a Patriots team that looked perilously thin at defensive end with Trey Flowers probably leaving in free agency. Bennett is probably best as an interior rusher in passing situations, but I suspect we’ll see Belichick get creative to try and create one-on-one matchups for the Texas A&M product.
The only concern is whether Bennett will butt heads again with the ornery Greg Schiano, who wasn’t impressed with Bennett’s propensity for freelancing while he was coach in Tampa Bay. Schiano valued Bennett only as a nickel pass-rusher and let him leave for the Seahawks, where he promptly won a Super Bowl. With the former Ohio State defensive coordinator joining Belichick’s staff this year, Schiano will need to let bygones be bygones and build his pass rush around New England’s new star end.
This move was perhaps inevitable for the Eagles after they signed Brandon Graham to a three-year, $40 million deal. Philly has about $26 million in cap space after making a series of moves this offseason to clear out room, including trading Bennett, restructuring Lane Johnson‘s deal, adding an extra year to Jason Kelce‘s contract to reduce his 2019 cap number, and moving on from Tim Jernigan.
Philly was probably going to cut Bennett if general manager Howie Roseman couldn’t find a trade partner, so getting something when the alternative is nothing is nice, but the vaunted Eagles defensive line is thinner at the moment than it has been in years past. Jernigan and Bennett are gone, Haloti Ngata is unlikely to return (and wasn’t effective last season), and Chris Long still hasn’t indicated whether he intends to return in 2019. This is a good draft for defensive linemen, of course, and the Eagles should be able to restock with younger talent, but it’s tough to expect a rookie to come in and perform as well as Bennett has.
It’s difficult to judge this trade in a vacuum, in part because each team made a decision before this swap that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with. If you accept that the Browns decided to deal Zeitler and the Giants planned to trade Vernon, this swap makes a lot of sense for both parties. If you question the broader logic, though, I might not be as enthused.
From Cleveland’s perspective, general manager John Dorsey has broken up a line that was very impressive during the second half of the season for Baker Mayfield. Zeitler was one of the league’s highest-paid guards and had a $12.4 million cap hold for 2019, but he also was an excellent two-way interior lineman who hadn’t missed a game in four years. The former Bengals standout did commit a career-high six penalties last season, but ask Cincinnati fans how much they miss the duo of Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth since they left in the spring of 2017. The Bengals’ offense has ground to a halt thanks to offensive line woes (and injuries) over the past two seasons.
Now, suddenly, Mayfield’s line is a major question mark. Starting left tackle Greg Robinson, whose deal is farther down in this file, has an addiction to holding penalties. The Browns will unquestionably replace Zeitler with 2018 second-rounder Austin Corbett, who played 14 offensive snaps as a rookie. Could Corbett turn out to be a useful player? Of course. Is it worth trading away an excellent guard to find out? It seems like a risky proposition, especially given that the Browns hardly need cap space. The idea of having Corbett as depth for the inevitable offensive line injuries every team deals with during a season seems more appealing than moving an upper-echelon lineman to get him into the lineup.
Cleveland did need to add a second pass-rusher to pair with Myles Garrett, and trading for Vernon allows the former Dolphins standout to move back into a 4-3 base defense under new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. Vernon hasn’t racked up gaudy sack numbers during his career, but his knockdown totals have made him a bit of an analytics darling, including the 36-hit season in 2015 that helped get him a five-year, $85 million deal in free agency.
The 28-year-old Vernon went through a lost half-season in 2018 after suffering a high ankle sprain, which has sunk pass-rushers like Ezekiel Ansah for months at a time in years past. He seemed like an obvious cap casualty at the halfway point of the season, but Vernon played like a superstar over the final six weeks of the season. The new Browns end generated six sacks and 15 knockdowns over the final six weeks, with the latter mark ranking fourth in the NFL in that span.
If Cleveland gets that sort of production out of Vernon, they’ll win this deal. I wouldn’t quite count on that, but a healthy Vernon will see one-on-one matchups across from Garrett and should be good for a sack every other week, which makes him an above-average edge rusher. He’s not really a consistently stout run defender, which could hurt a Browns team that ranked 25th in the league in run defense DVOA last season, but Vernon isn’t a liability in that role, either. His arrival also moves Emmanuel Ogbah into a rotational role as the third defensive end, which is probably a better fit for his level of ability. The Browns might rue moving on from Carl Nassib, who looked a lot better in Tampa than he did in Cleveland, but their defensive line will be better once this trade is confirmed.
The issue here, though, is that we’re entering an offseason where the draft is full of edge-rushing talent. Even after the franchise tag picked off a handful of talented defensive ends, there are going to be plenty of options available to teams who want to add pass-rushers. Is Vernon at a base salary of $15.5 million better than adding, say, Michael Bennett (who is reportedly on the trade/release block) and Terrell Suggs for the same price? Would the Browns have been better off trading for Justin Houston, who wouldn’t have cost anywhere near as much in terms of compensation? I understand wanting to add an edge rusher, and Vernon is a good one, but I’m not sure I would have wanted to trade Zeitler to get one in this market.
It should be no surprise, on the other hand, that Giants GM Dave Gettleman made a move for an offensive lineman. There aren’t any plug-and-play starters in free agency at guard besides Rodger Saffold, and if the Giants didn’t think they were going to get the Rams standout, pivoting to Zeitler makes a lot of sense. The cap is a far more pressing concern for Big Blue, and Zeitler’s $10 million base salary might prevent them from paying a similar amount to former Gettleman draftee Daryl Williams to come play right tackle, but Zeitler fills in a spot that was occupied by Patrick Omameh and Jamon Brown last season.
It’s a major upgrade, and while Gettleman’s plan to construct a 1970s-era offense around the running game while paying Eli Manning more than 12 percent of his salary cap is brutally flawed, building around a great offensive line is reasonable enough. I’m not sure the Giants get there by adding Zeitler, especially given how badly Nate Solder regressed in New York last season, but they’re a much more talented line with Zeitler than without him.
On the other hand, a defense that wasn’t exactly crammed with pass-rushing talent just lost its best edge defender. After Vernon, the team’s most productive pass-rushers were defensive tackle B.J. Hill and second-year linebacker Lorenzo Carter, who is now penciled in to take over as one of the starting outside linebackers in James Bettcher’s defense. The Giants ranked 31st in adjusted sack rate last season, and they just traded away the only thing protecting them from the 32nd-ranked Raiders.
The good news for the Giants is what I mentioned earlier: They should be able to find pass-rushing help, either in free agency or with one of their draft picks. If the Kyler Murray rumors turn out to be true, they could suddenly be in great shape with the sixth pick. The names who keep popping up at the top of the draft include two quarterbacks (Murray and Dwayne Haskins), a dominant defensive tackle (Quinnen Williams), and three edge rushers (Nick Bosa, Josh Allen and Montez Sweat). Todd McShay’s most recent mock draft has offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor and edge rusher Rashan Gary coming off of the board at seven and eight after the Giants pick, too.
The Giants need players at all those positions, which means that they should be in a great spot to add their quarterback of the future, an impact defensive lineman or a right tackle at six. They had to trade down one round in the middle of the draft to get this done, which is a slight demerit, but they added a great player at a position of need by giving up a player at a position where there will be options this offseason. It’s easier to make sense of their side on this one.
Cardinals get: OT Marcus Gilbert
Steelers get: 2019 sixth-round pick
Cardinals grade: B+
Steelers grade: C+
This trade will likely be for the Cardinals’ compensatory pick, which comes in at No. 207. The Steelers once drafted the immaculately named Cap Boso with the 207th pick, but given that they were likely to release Gilbert if a trade partner didn’t arise, this is essentially a salary dump. Matt Feiler, who started nine games at right tackle a year ago, will likely compete with 2018 third-rounder Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting job in camp for a Steelers team that lost legendary offensive line coach Mike Munchak to the Broncos this offseason.
The Cardinals badly needed offensive line help at just about every spot, and while Justin Pugh might have been able to kick out and play right tackle, Arizona will pencil in Gilbert as its starting right tackle for Week 1. The Cards won’t be using a pen here for injury reasons, as Gilbert has missed 23 games over the past four seasons thanks to a suspension and injuries to his knee, ankle and hamstring. Gilbert will make $4.9 million in the final year of his contract, which is a risk worth taking for Arizona.
Thursday, March 7
Washington gets: QB Case Keenum (on a restructured deal), 2020 seventh-round pick
Broncos get: 2020 sixth-round pick
Washington grade: C
Broncos grade: C+
Denver general manager John Elway had little leverage with Keenum after trading for Joe Flacco last month. The Broncos already had guaranteed $7 million of Keenum’s $18 million base salary in 2019, and while no team was going to take on that extra $11 million in a trade, moving on from their 2018 starter would have reduced Denver’s liability this upcoming season.
By trading Keenum in lieu of releasing him, the Broncos will realize a small cash savings. The offsets on Keenum’s deal mean the team would only have realized a financial or cap savings if another team was willing to offer the 31-year-old more than $7 million for 2019, which seems unlikely. If we assume no team was willing to make that sort of offer, teams would instead just offer the minimum and allow the Broncos to assume the majority of the money owed Keenum, who would get the same amount of cash in his pocket either way. The veteran minimum for Keenum would have been $800,000 or so, meaning the Broncos would have been on the hook for $6.2 million if they had released Keenum.
Instead, with Keenum’s blessing, the Broncos restructured his deal and paid their incumbent $500,000 to forgo the $11 million in unguaranteed money for 2019. The Broncos will be on the hook for that $500,000 and $3.5 million of Keenum’s $7 million base salary, while Washington will take on the other $3.5 million. The pick swap of a sixth-round pick for a seventh-rounder in 2020 is of little consequence. The Broncos were getting rid of Keenum either way; making this move saves them about $2.2 million.
It’s a more curious move for Washington, who theoretically could have waited for the Broncos to cut Keenum and picked him up in the free-agent market for the minimum. Instead, it paid a premium of $2.7 million or so to acquire Keenum now, which suggests it was worried somebody else was going to beat it to the punch and trade for Keenum, or that Keenum would have a more attractive suitor in unrestricted free agency.
I’m not sure there was one, if only because Washington represents Keenum’s best chance at a starting job. If Nick Foles goes to Jacksonville as expected when free agency begins, well, there just aren’t going to be any starting jobs open. Every other team either has a veteran incumbent or a young player they’re committed to starting, and that’s before we figure out where draft picks Kyler Murray (Oklahoma) and Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State) are going to end up.
It’s possible that a team such as the Dolphins or Giants could cut their starting quarterback and go for Keenum as a bridge option, but this was the best opportunity left as the market currently stands, which is why Keenum was willing to forgo the open market and take that $10.5 million pay cut to go to Washington.
Washington fans might not be particularly excited about the idea of heading into 2019 with Keenum and Colt McCoy as their options at starting quarterback, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Jay Gruden & Co. made another move at the position. They don’t have the cap space to add anyone with a significant salary, but I wouldn’t count out a move up for someone like Haskins if Gruden thinks he’s a franchise passer. Second-tier passers such as Drew Lock (Missouri) and Daniel Jones (Duke) also could be in the discussion. If Washington drafts a passer in one of the first two rounds in April, Keenum and McCoy could be competing for a roster spot as opposed to the starting quarterback’s job.
Keenum isn’t going to excite a frustrated Washington fan base, but he does raise the floor for a Washington team that was 6-3 last season before Alex Smith broke his leg. McCoy made it through only one start before fracturing his fibula against the Eagles, which ended up forcing Washington to turn to replacement-level options Mark Sanchez and Josh Johnson over the remainder of the season. Keenum isn’t going to be the passer we saw in 2017, but he’s also not a replacement-level quarterback. Sixteen games from Keenum and McCoy should be better than 16 games from McCoy, Sanchez and Johnson.
The deal: Three years, $18 million
This is a curious move for a Ravens team that just invested first- (Hayden Hurst) and third-round picks (Mark Andrews) at tight end last year. Andrews was more productive in Year 1, racking up more receiving yards (552) than Boyle (213) and Hurst (163) combined. It feels like he has earned a starting role in the lineup as the move to tight end.
With Boyle now getting $6 million per season, that suddenly seems to leave Hurst as the odd man out, which doesn’t make sense. The former Pirates minor-leaguer was an over-aged draftee and will turn 26 in August, so the Ravens can’t exactly stash Hurst and wait for him to develop. Hurst underwent foot surgery in August and had a screw in his foot for the entire 2018 season. John Harbaugh said he was expecting big things from both his young tight ends at the combine.
Boyle fits in as the best run blocker of the three, which is going to matter in an offense built around Lamar Jackson. His role didn’t markedly increase once Jackson entered the lineup, though; he played just less than 54 percent of the offensive snaps with Joe Flacco at quarterback and a little more than 56 percent of the snaps with the rookie under center.
Over that time frame, the Ravens came out with three or more tight ends on 15.5 percent of their snaps, the third-highest rate in the league, but they weren’t very effective on those plays. Baltimore cost itself an average of 0.3 expected points per snap with three tight ends once Jackson took over, the fifth-worst offensive rate in the league.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter pointed out on Twitter that Boyle was in high demand from other teams as a blocking tight end. He’s a useful player. Blocking tight ends typically don’t get this sort of money, though, and there are other players in the market — Michael Hoomanawanui comes to mind — who offer above-average blocking ability at what will likely be a fraction of the cost. It’s difficult to see how the Ravens are going to parse out snaps at tight end in a way that would make the investments they’ve made at this position over the past 12 months make sense.
Tuesday, March 5
The deal: Three years, $41.3 million with $27 million guaranteed
Smith might have become the most anonymous member of the NFL’s eight-digit club, as Tampa Bay avoided a possible franchise tag by signing their 2015 second-round pick. Given how Tampa structures its contracts, we can say pretty confidently this is a two-year guaranteed pact with a team option for 2021. Given that the franchise tag would have cost Tampa $14.1 million, the team is getting a slight discount by guaranteeing Smith a second season in that same ballpark.
Does Smith belong alongside players such as Trent Williams and Russell Okung, whose extensions all have a similar average annual salary? Depends on what you value. Smith hasn’t looked like a dominant left tackle, but on an offense that has been wildly inconsistent, he has been stable.
According to STATS LLC tracking, Smith has given up either five or 5.5 sacks in three of his four seasons as a pro, with a zero-sack campaign in 2016 as the lone exception. Smith committed 13 penalties that season, but he has brought down that total to eight in 2017 and six last season. His best asset might simply be availability: Smith has played 4,142 of Tampa’s 4,171 offensive snaps since being drafted in 2015.
He doesn’t turn 26 until June, and in a league in which teams are starving for competent offensive line play, a young, league-average left tackle was going to get paid if he hit the free market. This deal allows Smith to avoid the franchise tag before hitting the free-agent market again at age 29, which is a nice win for the Penn State product. Tampa gets security on its quarterback’s blindside for two years, regardless of whether it sticks with Jameis Winston after 2019 or replaces him with a new passer. Both parties can feel like they won a bit here.
The deal: Two years, $9 million
Through the first quarter of the 2018 season, it looked like the 31-year-old Hunt was embarking on a stunning career season for the Colts. The Estonian racked up four sacks and nine tackles for loss through the first four weeks of the season, at which point he missed a game with a knee injury. After the Colts returned from their Week 6 bye, Hunt stopped stuffing the scoresheet, with the Bengals draftee picking up just one sack and four tackles for loss over the final nine games of the season.
Given that Hunt had shown no propensity for morphing into the Eastern European J.J. Watt at any point in his career before or after September 2018, it’s fair to suggest that the hottest month of his life was probably an outlier. You can understand why the Colts would want to bring Hunt back for another year as part of their defensive line rotation, but in a draft flush with defensive line talent, it’s fair to wonder whether Indy should have looked for a longer-term solution. Hunt’s $9 million deal isn’t going to break the bank for a team with more than $100 million in cap space, but it’s also giving snaps to a player who isn’t likely to be a difference-maker.
Friday, March 1
The deal: Three years, $40 million
For the second straight offseason, the Eagles have managed to keep a key defender who looked sure to leave town. It was linebacker Nigel Bradham last year. When a huge market didn’t develop for the former Bills linebacker, Philly swooped in and re-signed Bradham to a five-year, $40 million deal. Bradham’s deal was more realistically a one-year, $5.9 million pact with a series of team options, but general manager Howie Roseman found a way to retain a key part of Jim Schwartz’s defense.
It’s even more impressive that they’ve managed to keep around Graham, who comes at a much larger price. The former first-round pick signed a three-year, $40 million deal, a comfortable raise on the four-year, $26 million pact he signed before the 2015 season. Keeping Graham around ensures that the Eagles can build their defensive end rotation around the Michigan product, Michael Bennett, and 2017 first-rounder Derek Barnett, with Chris Long‘s future still unclear.
The difference between these two pacts is that Bradham’s contract came days into the free agent negotiating period, when the Eagles had a good idea of who they were and were not going to be able to keep. Graham’s contract comes two weeks before free agency, and by making this move now, the Eagles are probably going to be forced to make moves to create more cap room for their defensive end. Tim Jernigan has already been released. Nelson Agholor is at risk.
As for Graham, this deal might represent an overpay. The 30-year-old was long underrated around the league, including by this very organization, which only pushed him into the starting lineup on a regular basis during his sixth season in the league. He is a stout run defender on the edge, but he hasn’t been the sort of pass-rusher who would typically come away with this sort of contract. Over his four years as a starter, Graham has averaged 6.4 sacks and 14.3 knockdowns per season, which is right in line with guys such as Preston Smith and Clay Matthews, who probably aren’t getting this sort of deal in free agency.
Eagles fans might rightfully point out that Graham is part of a rotation that might prevent him from racking up better numbers, and there’s some truth to that. He has played 68.6 percent of Philadelphia’s snaps over the past two seasons. It’s also an issue, though, when you’re paying a player who isn’t on the field every down the sort of money he is getting from the Eagles on this deal. Graham would have found a contract like on this on the free market, but it might not be the right deal for the Eagles given how they use defensive ends and their needs elsewhere on the roster.
Monday, Feb. 25
The deal: One year, $7 million
On its face, you might see a great deal here. Robinson, who hadn’t lived up to expectations since being drafted with the second overall pick by the Rams in 2014, unquestionably had the best half-season of his career with the Browns. After undrafted rookie Desmond Harrison struggled and missed the Week 9 game against the Chiefs with an illness, Robinson took over at left tackle and stabilized the weakest point on Cleveland’s line. According to Stats LLC tracking, Robinson didn’t allow a single sack across eight starts and 463 offensive snaps. That’s exciting.
The problem, on the other hand, is that Robinson kept seeing yellow. He wasn’t flagged in his debut start against the Chiefs, but the Auburn product was penalized 10 times over the final seven games of the season. Does that sound like a lot? It’s a lot.
To put that in context, nobody else in the NFL had more penalties from Weeks 10-17 than Robinson. Over that time period, Robinson committed nine holding penalties and nobody else in the league picked up more than five. On a per-snap basis over the entire season, Robinson was the most-penalized offensive player in football with 400 snaps from scrimmage or more, racking up penalties once every 46.3 snaps. The second-most penalized offensive player was Harrison.
I wonder if the Browns are setting the bar a little low here. Yes, Robinson is better than Harrison. It’s true that you would generally rather take a holding penalty than a sack, since a hold at least allows you to replay the down, but that doesn’t make a hold a meaningless play. One of Robinson’s holding calls wiped away a 76-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Callaway. Another took a 35-yard Nick Chubb run off of the books. The bar for left tackles is high, but nobody in the modern NFL has been able to sustain a steady run of success at tackle while averaging what amounts to more than one holding penalty per week.
Could the holding penalties regress toward the mean? It’s possible, but I wouldn’t hold out much significant hope. Robinson racked up a league-high 31 holding calls from 2014-17, 10 more than any other offensive lineman, despite playing only 51 games. He was penalized once every 60 offensive snaps, which is a little better than his rate in 2018, but not by much.
On the other hand, again per STATS LLC tracking, Robinson allowed 23 sacks over that same four-year span. You would also count on that to regress toward the mean in 2019, too, and if Robinson doesn’t simultaneously cut his penalties way below his career rate, he’s a problem, not a solution.
Compounding all of this is that the Browns are reportedly paying Robinson a base salary of $7 million in 2019. The money isn’t critical to the Browns, given that they entered the offseason with more than $75 million in cap space, but the opportunity cost is. Relying on Robinson as their left tackle without pursuing a better long-term option is likely to slow the franchise’s development. Unless he takes a huge step forward and starts avoiding penalties, the Browns are going to be back in the market for a left tackle next offseason. Bringing back Robinson as a swing tackle and an option is one thing, but passing on a tackle who would have solved their problems in this year’s draft in order to go for another go-round with Robinson is a step backward.
If Robinson does take that step forward, this contract doesn’t offer the Browns any protection. A one-year deal means Robinson would be allowed to hit the market next offseason or require a lucrative franchise tag to stick around in Cleveland. If the Browns really thought he was their guy on the blindside, general manager John Dorsey needed to get extra unguaranteed years onto this deal to give the team the flexibility to keep Robinson around if he does have that breakout season. Instead, Robinson is a short-term stopgap being paid a premium in the hopes he turns into a long-term solution. There’s not much available on the market at left tackle, but this deal didn’t solve much for Cleveland.
Thursday, Feb. 7
The deal: Three years, $22.5 million with $9 million guaranteed
The Cardinals made a series of signings before the free-agent period began. While adding Charles Clay and Brooks Reed on one-year deals were relatively low-risk acquisitions, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim took a much bigger swing at corner to try to find a partner for Patrick Peterson. With a thin cornerback market waiting in free agency, Arizona might have rationalized to itself that it needed to act immediately by adding Alford.
The problem, though, is that Alford was one of the worst starting cornerbacks in the NFL last season. He allowed eight touchdowns as Atlanta’s primary defender in coverage, on plays both short and long. The Falcons gave up 11 pass plays of 35 yards or more and Alford was in coverage on six of them, including four in one game against the Giants, who weren’t exactly the Greatest Show on Turf. Those four plays alone amounted to 200 passing yards for Eli Manning. Alford had holding penalties declined on two of those four catches and was flagged 12 times during the season, the seventh-highest total in the league.
Undersized corners tend to not age well, and with Alford turning 30 in November, it’s tough to count on much of a resurgence. The Cardinals clearly expect one, giving that they’re paying Alford $9 million for the 2019 season, with $13.5 million in unguaranteed salaries in 2020 and 2021 waiting if he returns to form. The Cards needed cornerback help, but after signing Alford, they might still need it, too.