The best and worst deals so far: NFL free agency and trade grades
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 get completed.
Keep in mind that I’m not grading deals until we get a clearer picture of the money involved. So if you don’t see a grade for a deal that has been reported, check back later.
Monday, March 11
The deal: Four years, $ 52 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.
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, the latter of whom is likely to be a trade candidate after Jackson’s arrival. 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: 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, $ 54 million with $ 27 million semi-guaranteed
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.
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.
More at http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/26152205/barnwell-2019-nfl-free-agency-trade-grades-tracking-every-big-signing-move