Money is flying all over the place in free agency. Who deserves high marks, and who will come to regret their decisions? Bill Barnwell breaks down each big deal.
Editor's note: This article will be updated throughout the week, with the most recent write-ups at the top.
Thursday, March 17
Russell Okung (Broncos): B
Remember the one about the player who represented himself and thoroughly enjoyed the experience? You don't because there's a reason players get agents: They help. Consider, for example, that while agents are allowed to talk to teams during the legal tampering window, players are not. That means Okung wasn't (legally) allowed to talk to teams for three days while his competitors' agents were able to do so.
It might not surprise you, then, that Okung was one of the last free agents off the market, and his deal isn't very impressive. Although preliminary reports had Okung's deal as a five-year contract worth $10.6 million per year, the actual numbers are far less. Okung's contract is really a one-year deal worth up to $8 million with a four-year, $48 million team option tacked on. That's an option the oft-injured Okung is unlikely to see, though if he impresses in his debut season in Denver, anything is possible.
This is a much better deal for the Broncos, who basically get a year's trial on Okung at below-market value before deciding on a possible long-term commitment. Although they can fit Okung under their cap as currently constructed, the Broncos will likely carve out further space for this deal by moving on from injury-prone tackle Ryan Clady, who has a $10.1 million cap hold for 2016. The Broncos can save $8.9 million by trading or releasing Clady, a move likely to happen soon.
Andre Smith (Vikings): B
I'm not sure whether the Vikings' offensive line will be great next year, but man, it's going to have some big dudes. Alex Boone, Phil Loadholt and now Smith? At 6-foot-4, Smith is the smallest of the bunch, but his listed weight of 300 pounds seems like a conservative interpretation. At his best, Smith is a mauling right tackle with the athleticism to hold up against upper-echelon pass-rushers, but we haven't seen him at his best since 2013. Smith was a disaster in 2014 before going down with a torn triceps, and he delivered uneven play around a concussion in 2015. The deal gets a high grade, though, because it's a moderately high ceiling with little risk. Smith is guaranteed just $1 million on his one-year, $3.5 million deal, and he'll compete with Loadholt -- coming off of a torn left Achilles -- for the starting gig at right tackle.
Zane Beadles (49ers): B
After earning a five-year, $30 million deal with the Jaguars for this work as a zone-blocking guard in Denver, Beadles failed to serve as the cornerstone on the interior of Jacksonville's offensive line. There were rumors that the Jags were considering benching Beadles after his first season with the team, and it was little surprise when they released Beadles this offseason. A move to the 49ers makes sense because the team is preciously thin at guard after losing Boone this offseason and is installing a zone-blocking scheme under Chip Kelly. Beadles' three-year, $11.8 million deal won't cost the 49ers much, given their oodles of cap room, and Eagles fans can tell you all about how important it is for the Kelly offense to have quality guards. The only question is whether Kelly can get the Beadles from 2013 back in the Bay Area.
Kelvin Beachum (Jaguars): B+
One of the best left tackles in the league in 2014, Beachum looked ready to sign a long-term deal for big money to protect some quarterback's blind side before he tore his ACL in 2015. That has limited his market, and it encouraged the Jaguars to find an unorthodox solution to a frustrating problem. Luke Joeckel, the second overall pick in 2013, simply hasn't been very good at left tackle, and with the Jags locking Jermey Parnell up with a big-money deal to play on the right side, there's no obvious place for Joeckel to go.
Instead of hoping Joeckel finally becomes the player the Jaguars were expecting, general manager Dave Caldwell used his cap space to take a shot at a massive upgrade and protect Blake Bortles in the process. Beachum got more than your typical prove-it deal -- he'll make $4.5 million in 2016, with incentives that could take that figure to $6 million -- but the Jags were able to get a crucial second year added to the contract, and that gives them some leverage if they want to re-sign Beachum. The $10 million roster bonus in that second year would be a fair amount to pay, but given that there are seven left tackles in the league with cap hits of more than $10 million, it's not bizarre if Beachum delivers on his promise from 2014. At the very worst, this should inspire some competition at a disappointing position for the Jags.
Wednesday, March 16
Patriots acquire Martellus Bennett, 204th draft pick; Bears acquire 127th draft pick
With the vast majority of impact free agents inked, the Patriots are keeping this grade file alive with a daily trade. On Wednesday, they acquired their replacement for waived tight end Scott Chandler by acquiring Bennett, who had worn out his welcome in Chicago. They also get the 204th pick in the 2016 draft, a sixth-rounder they had previously sent to the Bears to acquire special-teamer Jon Bostic. The difference between the two picks is equivalent, per Chase Stuart's draft chart, to the 141st pick in the draft, so it's a selection at the top of the fifth round.
That's a nice haul for the Bears, given that they were likely to cut Bennett if they couldn't find a trade partner. The reality is there weren't many teams that were going to be interested in acquiring a tight end with a cap hit north of $5 million; teams such as the Jets, Texans and Cardinals don't have the cap space, while the Giants had Bennett in the past and might not want him back.
The Patriots were one of the precious few places that fit, given their emphasis on two-tight-end sets. They lined up with two or more tight ends on 492 snaps last season, behind only the Titans and Panthers. After cutting Chandler earlier this month, the 6-foot-7 Bennett gives the Patriots a receiver who can help stretch the field alongside Rob Gronkowski and their seemingly endless run of agile wideouts while giving the Pats a second devastating weapon in the red zone. Bennett's desire for a long-term deal is well-known and helped push him into John Fox's doghouse in Chicago, but it's unlikely one will be forthcoming in New England. The Patriots likely see this as a one-year rental and will pitch it to Bennett as a way to rebuild his value before he hits the market again in 2017. With limited tight ends such as Garrett Graham and Andrew Quarless the best left on the market, Bennett is a significant upgrade on the alternative options for New England.
Chris Long (Patriots): A
It's possible that Long is absolutely washed, that his career as an upper-echelon pass-rusher is finished after he recorded just four sacks in his past two seasons. But I am skeptical that it's time to throw in the towel. Long hasn't been healthy for most of the past two years; he played only 717 defensive snaps over that time, which isn't much at all, given that Long lined up for 839 snaps in his last healthy season (2013).
Long's disappointing past two seasons really amount to one season of middling production; is it crazy for a dominant pass-rusher to have a bad year (or two) in the middle of an otherwise excellent career? Think of Charles Haley, who appeared to be on his way out as he hit 30; he had 10 combined sacks over his first two seasons in Dallas, only to produce an All-Pro campaign and a 12.5-sack season in 1994. It's too early to give up on a player with Long's history and level of production. Equally important is that the Patriots are getting an absolute bargain, given that Long will make just $2 million in 2016. That's not bad, given that Olivier Vernon is going to make just under $1.8 million per game. This is a low-risk, high-reward deal for the Patriots and one of the very best deals of free agency.
Tuesday, March 15
C.J. Anderson (Broncos): C-
The possibility of an Anderson signing was covered in this space when Miami initially submitted its offer sheet, but it's bizarre to think the Broncos chose to match. Again, the Broncos didn't think it was worth the extra $900,000 or so to slap Anderson with the second-round tender instead of the lowest-tier tender, which opened the possibility of his getting an offer sheet. Now, they'll pay Anderson $5.6 million in guaranteed money this year, including a $5 million signing bonus that will make it difficult to cut him if the Broncos want to move on from the Cal product. It was a dramatically incorrect miscalculation by one of the league's smartest front offices.
In a way, you can argue the Broncos are better equipped to match this deal because they lost Brock Osweiler and Malik Jackson, among others, this offseason. Cap space isn't quite as pressing of a concern as it had been, and under this new spectrum, the Broncos can treat this like a two-year deal for Anderson. Even under that logic, though, this deal doesn't fit. The Broncos gave Anderson the starting job in 2014 only after everybody in front of him got injured; last year, they benched him early in the year for Ronnie Hillman and gave Hillman the bulk of the offensive workload, despite the fact that Anderson outperformed Hillman for most of the campaign. It wasn't until the Super Bowl that Anderson served as the primary back. The Broncos haven't treated Anderson like a surefire No. 1 running back for any length of time. Now, at least for a couple seasons, they'll be paying him like a starter.
Mike Wallace (Ravens): C+
"I need a good quarterback," Mike Wallace said of his decision to join the Ravens on Tuesday. He's not wrong. Wallace looked like one of the league's most promising young receivers during his time in Pittsburgh alongside Ben Roethlisberger, but since he left the Steel City, he hasn't been remotely close to the same target. Wallace averaged 64.2 receiving yards per game and 17.2 yards per reception as a member of the Steelers. Despite seemingly moving into a larger role after departing, Wallace's numbers have fallen to 47.2 yards per game and just 12.7 yards per catch.
It's fair to suggest Wallace hasn't played with quarterbacks who were able to take advantage of his strengths. Ryan Tannehill was 26th in the league in Total QBR on "deep" passes (16 yards or more) during 2013 and 2014, Wallace's two years in Miami. Teddy Bridgewater was 24th in Total QBR on the same throws. Of course, some of that is on Wallace, but Tannehill rarely had the pass protection to throw downfield, and Bridgewater's arm causes the Vikings to shy away from those sorts of passes. In Baltimore, Wallace will have Joe Flacco, who loves nothing more than chucking the ball 40 or more yards downfield. It's the best fit Wallace has had since Roethlisberger.
As for the Ravens, the fit makes some sense, given what happened last year. Injuries decimated Baltimore's receiving corps and left them with a mystifyingly obscure group of wideouts. After being down to Kamar Aiken and a group of waiver-wire castoffs by December, the Ravens can't possibly be worse at wide receiver in 2016. They'll get Steve Smith back from his torn Achilles while adding Breshad Perriman, who missed his entire rookie season with a nagging knee injury.
It's Perriman's presence that makes this an odd signing. The UCF product was a project coming out of school, but as a big, athletic receiver, his best asset was his straight-line speed heading downfield. Sound familiar? It sure seems Wallace will be playing what amounted to Perriman's role in the Baltimore offense heading into 2015, and if anybody needed regular reps to get accustomed to the professional game, it's a raw player such as Perriman. Wallace's two-year, $11.8 million deal suggests he'll be no worse than second in line for targets -- and that could very well be at the expense of last year's first-rounder.
Monday, March 14
Eric Weddle (Ravens): C+
Although the price for Weddle is reasonable -- four years and $26 million with $13 million guaranteed -- it's hard to see this as a great fit for the Ravens, who have been shedding young talent and replacing it with older players over the past few offseasons. It was only a few days ago that the Ravens said they were committed to moving Lardarius Webb to free safety, where he suited up in Week 17. Now, with Weddle in the fold and Will Hill locked in at strong safety, it makes little sense to keep Webb and his $9.5 million cap hit. If the Ravens weren't going to keep Webb, it would have been better to cut him and create cap space that way, in lieu of restructuring the deals of Jimmy Smith and Marshal Yanda, as Baltimore did this past week.
Casey Hayward (Chargers): B+
Badly in need of help for the league's 27th-ranked pass defense by DVOA, the Chargers waited out the first few days of free agency and came away with a good deal in shoring up the weaker points of their secondary. In a league in which teams often use their five-defensive back nickel sets as their base defenses, it makes more sense to pay a third cornerback starter good money than it does to lock up an inside linebacker who nominally starts but can't move around in pass coverage.
With that in mind, it makes sense that San Diego cut Donald Butler and replaced him with Hayward, one of the league's best slot cornerbacks during his time in Green Bay, on a three-year deal worth $15.3 million with just $6.8 million guaranteed. That's a good price for a third cornerback and a great deal if the Chargers end up getting more out of the 26-year-old Vanderbilt product. The signing suggests that the league didn't think Hayward could be an every-down cornerback on the edge, but don't be surprised if the Chargers try the 5-foot-11 Hayward on the outside after Brandon Flowers eventually moves on. After all, they drafted 5-foot-10 Jason Verrett, who some teams thought would be able to play only in the slot, and developed him into a Pro Bowl cornerback on the outside.
Brandon Mebane (Chargers): B
The Chargers added to their defensive rebuild by finding some badly needed defensive line help. With Kendall Reyes failing to live up to his early promise before leaving for Washington this offseason and with Sean Lissemore unable to make an impact, the Chargers needed another lineman to pair with Corey Liuget. Enter Mebane, the veteran Seahawks defensive tackle, who will move from a 4-3 to play the nose in San Diego's 3-4 alignment (and in nickel sets). At 31, Mebane doesn't offer the long-term upside of Hayward, and veteran linemen such as Red Bryant and Chris Clemons have failed to make much impact after leaving Seattle, but Mebane's three-year, $13.5 million deal doesn't contain any guaranteed money after 2016, which makes it a relatively risk-free endeavor.
Jerrell Freeman (Bears): B
One of the credos of any sort of "Moneyball" philosophy is to try to create arbitrage by placing an emphasis on concepts other teams don't value appropriately. Ryan Pace doesn't want us thinking he's some Moneyball GM, but he unwittingly sought such a proposition when he went after his second talented inside linebacker in a week. The rangy Freeman, signed to a three-year, $12 million deal with $6 million guaranteed, will join Danny Trevathan to make up arguably the best pair of inside linebackers within a 3-4 defense in football.
No team has made a bigger upgrade at one position this offseason than the Bears have at inside linebacker, and with oodles of cap space available, Pace has wisely placed large roster bonuses in each player's 2016 compensation to retain flexibility in future years. If Freeman doesn't look like the guy who called the shots for Indy, the Bears can move on with just $2 million in dead money next year. This year, the Bears will have $12.1 million on their cap committed to inside linebackers. That's the fifth-highest total in the NFL at the moment. It doesn't top the Steelers, who have an otherworldly $19.6 million devoted to inside linebackers, thanks to the $15.1 million owed Lawrence Timmons after years of restructures.
Friday, March 11
Broncos acquire Mark Sanchez; Eagles acquire conditional draft pick
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman continues to extract draft picks for players who seemingly have no trade value. After re-signing Sam Bradford and adding Chase Daniel, Sanchez and his $5.5 million cap charge seemed to be a burden on the Eagles, who suddenly had the most expensive third quarterback in football. Philly would have accrued $2 million in dead money on its cap by cutting Sanchez, but the trade to Denver leaves it with a lone million on the cap for a player who was unlikely to see the field. Even if the Eagles don't end up seeing any picks from this deal, saving the million bucks (or $400,000 or so, depending on the offset language) in guaranteed salary is a nice victory.
As for the Broncos, while it's easy to turn Sanchez into a punch line, the reality is he was probably the highest-floor quarterback available. They're not done shopping at quarterback, given that they could still add Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin III, but Sanchez is an upper-echelon backup and a reasonable emergency starter. It's hard to argue that this is a significant downgrade for the Broncos at quarterback, given that they spent most of last year trotting out (and winning with) a very limited Peyton Manning.
The value of the conditional pick in the deal remains unknown and obviously influences these grades. The Eagles might be able to extract a reasonable midround pick from the Broncos if Sanchez starts 16 games or makes the Pro Bowl; more plausibly, this is going to be a sixth- or seventh-round pick if Sanchez makes his presence felt in Denver. Under any circumstances, given that the Eagles had little need for Sanchez and the Broncos were down to Trevor Siemian atop their depth chart, it's hard to argue that this is anything but a win-win.
Robert Ayers (Bucs): C
In their perennial search for a pass-rusher, the Bucs eventually settled on the best player from one of the league's worst pass rushes. Ayers was one of the few success stories from the Giants' forays into free agency over the past couple years, having emerged as a viable run defender before he posted his best season as a pass-rusher in 2015. Ayers put up nine sacks and 22 quarterback hits in 12 games -- impressive numbers after he failed to post more than 5.5 sacks in a single season up to that point in his career.
It's possible Tampa Bay has found a solution, and at three years and $19.5 million, the price isn't too distressing. It's more likely, though, that the Buccaneers are paying for a career year from the 30-year-old Ayers and will likely get a more typical five-sack season from him. That isn't enough to justify $6 million-plus per year.
C.J. Anderson (Dolphins, offer sheet): C
This whole process would be an F for the Broncos, given that they needlessly created a situation in which they have to consider matching a far bigger offer for their starting running back. Denver could have tendered Anderson at the mid-tier level of $2.6 million, which would have forced teams to give up a second-round pick if they signed Anderson to an offer sheet and the Broncos chose not to match. (That second-round pick would come in handy, given that the 49ers want a second-rounder for Colin Kaepernick.) Instead, the Broncos tendered Anderson at the lowest tier, $1.7 million, and had the right to match an offer if it came in without any compensation. That difference -- nearly $900,000 -- just wasn't enough to justify the lower tender.
Now, the Broncos can't credibly match this offer. That might not be the worst thing. Anderson looked like Denver's best back for most of the season, but it's worth remembering that he lost the job early in the campaign and really only fell into the job in 2014 because everybody in front of him got hurt or played poorly. At his best, Anderson's a versatile back capable of assuming a heavy workload, but he hasn't put that together for a full season. This price tag would have made sense for teams with money to spare, but the cap-strapped Dolphins were better off going to the waiver wire and finding the next undrafted free agent who will turn into a worthwhile running back.
Chris Hogan (Patriots, offer sheet): C+
After striking out on Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones and Rishard Matthews, the Patriots appear to have found the big target who will replace Brandon LaFell in their offense. The 6-foot-1 Hogan signed a "heavily guaranteed" offer sheet that the Bills will struggle to match, given that the three-year, $12 million deal is front-weighted and has a $5.5 million cap charge in 2016. The Bills have only $4.5 million in cap space and probably can't justify shelling out that much for Hogan, who was their third wideout last season.
It's tempting to assume Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will find a way to turn Hogan into a star, but that's unlikely to be the case. For more than a decade, guys like Hogan -- LaFell, Donte' Stallworth, even Donald Hayes -- have come into New England and been ancillary targets. There's nothing wrong with that, and the Patriots need a player who can at least threaten to stretch the field and outmuscle defensive backs one-on-one the way Hogan can, but there's probably not a complete receiver lurking in Hogan's skill set.
Jermaine Kearse (Seahawks): B+
After suggesting to anybody who might listen that he wasn't going to give a hometown discount to stay with the Seahawks, Kearse came back to the Seahawks on a team-friendly deal. His three-year, $13.5 million contract has $6.3 million guaranteed in 2016 and nothing afterward, which means the Seahawks can retain financial flexibility and move on once Tyler Lockett is ready to step into the starting lineup on a permanent basis.
Meanwhile, they get the relative stability of Kearse, who improved his catch rate from 55 percent to 72 percent last season, as the Seahawks expanded their passing offense once Marshawn Lynch went out of the lineup. Kearse doesn't have a lot of untapped potential at this point, but his rapport with quarterback Russell Wilson and the low risk of the deal make it a win-win.
Bilal Powell (Jets): C
As a combination, the duo of Powell and Chris Ivory made a lot of sense, given that they had complementary skill sets. Powell was the receiving back, Ivory was the between-the-tackles power back, and most importantly, they were a cheap tandem. That's no longer the case. Ivory left for Jacksonville and has been replaced by Matt Forte, whose calling card is his versatility as a runner and receiver. It would have made sense for the Jets, who are struggling to stay under the cap, to combine Forte with a low-cost power back such as James Starks or Tim Hightower. (The Jets did bring Khiry Robinson in on a one-year deal with little guaranteed money, but Robinson's coming off a broken leg.)
Instead, the Jets brought back Powell on a three-year deal worth $11.3 million. Because they're struggling for cap space, they needed to give Powell a $1.7 million cap hit in 2016 before Powell's deal spikes to $4.6 million next year. Powell gets $2.5 million guaranteed next year too, so the Jets wouldn't be able to save any money by cutting him. That's a lot of downside and not much upside for a running back who profiles as a backup over that time frame.
Thursday, March 10
Mohamed Sanu (Falcons): C
After waiving Leonard Hankerson during the season and cutting Roddy White after it, the Falcons were down to second-year wideout Justin Hardy across from superstar No. 1 Julio Jones. Given how much emphasis coordinator Kyle Shanahan's offense places on its top target, it was fair to wonder whether the Falcons might try to get by with cheaper options as their secondary wideouts and use the cap space they have to improve on defense. Instead, they gave Sanu something very similar to the deal Golden Tate got from the Lions two years ago: five years and $32.5 million, with $14 million fully guaranteed at signing.
It's a lot to ask from a receiver who ceded his starting job with the Bengals to Marvin Jones last year and who hasn't really had a season that showed he's worth this sort of commitment. Sanu has been almost exclusively an underneath receiver during his career; among the 60 wide receivers with 150 catches or more since Sanu entered the league, he is 49th in terms of average air yards per pass attempt. That should make it easy for him to pick up yards after the catch, and he's 10th in that category, but the entire package adds up to only 11.8 yards per reception. And given that he is thrown such short passes, Sanu's catch rate -- 61.8 percent -- is disappointing. The Falcons probably could have picked up somebody like Jeremy Kerley, who was just waived by the Jets, and gotten similar production at a fraction of the price. Unless there's some untapped potential that Sanu hasn't shown behind Jones and A.J. Green, this looks like an overpay with money the Falcons really should have committed to shore up holes in their defense.
Rodney McLeod (Eagles): C+
McLeod was previously part of St. Louis' relatively anonymous secondary, which is suddenly blowing up to become the most expensive unit in league history (albeit scattered to the wind). The lesser of St. Louis' two safeties alongside playmaker T.J. McDonald, McLeod was the beneficiary of a great pass rush, spending less time in coverage than the vast majority of his counterparts. The Eagles hope to continue that with Jim Schwartz around.
I'd be skeptical of defensive backs from the Rams for the same reasons I was hesitant with Janoris Jenkins. But McLeod has the speed for cover for mistakes at cornerback -- you may remember him laying out Emmanuel Sanders with a legal hit in 2014 -- and given that the Eagles are currently booked to start Eric Rowe and Leodis McKelvin, there are going to be mistakes at cornerback. At five years and $37.5 million, it's a lot to spend on a safety, especially given the fact that Philly already gave Malcolm Jenkins a four-year, $35 million deal this offseason. The Eagles are set to spend as much on safeties as anybody else in the league over the next three years, and they're doing it without a transcendent star like Earl Thomas. It remains to be seen whether that's a smart idea. At the very least, it's a better plan than hoarding resources on running backs.
Derrick Johnson (Chiefs): C
The Chiefs were just too thin at inside linebacker to get away from Johnson, but his three-year, $21 million deal isn't likely to end well. The stalwart Kansas City veteran was able to recover from a 2014 torn Achilles to make the Pro Bowl in 2015, but that was a little bit of a generous vote, owing in part to how good the entire Chiefs defense was over most of the season. Johnson was an above-average inside linebacker, and the Chiefs are absolutely desperate for help at the position, but he's going to be entering his age-34 season with an Achilles tear on his résumé. Signing Johnson to a one-year deal would have been fine, but the $12 million guaranteed suggests that Johnson is going to be expected to start in 2017, and the list of inside linebackers who were productive contributors at 35 isn't very long. That's right when players like Takeo Spikes and James Farrior started to drop off. It's hard to see Johnson returning much value on this deal by its second year.
Bobby Massie (Bears): C+
For a long time, Massie was a sign of what was wrong with the Cardinals, an overmatched young player forced into the starting lineup as a rookie by virtue of a terribly mismanaged offensive line. Massie took his lumps and eventually emerged as a competent right tackle, albeit with some issues against speed rushers. He has done enough with his prototypical size to justify a starting gig in the NFL, but his ceiling is still pretty low.
Fortunately, Chicago isn't paying Massie very much -- this is a three-year, $18 million deal with just $6.25 million guaranteed, meaning the Bears can basically get out of this contract after one year with no pain if they find a better option at right tackle. They'll likely use the Massie signing to push Kyle Long back inside to guard, which upgrades what otherwise would have also been a position of need with a player who was previously a Pro Bowler on the interior. (Long also made the Pro Bowl at tackle this year as an injury replacement, but it was on scholarship.) It's a low-risk move for the Bears, who have money to burn and a paucity of competent contributors on the roster.
Jeremy Lane (Seahawks): B+
Go back to Super Bowl XLIX: The pass Jeremy Lane picked off in the shadow of his own end zone ended up being sort of a Pyrrhic victory. Lane suffered several serious injuries on the play, tearing his ACL and gruesomely shattering his wrist, with an infection causing a second surgery in the spring. The Patriots spent the rest of the game picking on Tharold Simon, who replaced Lane in the lineup. Lane might have taken over for the departing Byron Maxwell in the starting lineup, but because Lane was out for most of 2015, the Seahawks dipped into free agency and signed Cary Williams, who was a disaster and failed to last even a single season in Seattle. Lane finally made it back in November and had an up-and-down run in Seattle's secondary.
More than a year later, the Seahawks and Lane are now hitched for the long term. And in a weird way, the injury might have helped. If Lane had taken over as the starter in 2015 and played well, the Seahawks probably would have lost him in free agency, just as they weren't able to afford Maxwell. Now, they've locked up Lane on a four-year, $23 million deal with $11 million guaranteed. Given that the floor for Lane is probably as a nickel corner, and the Seahawks play in a division with Bruce Arians and the Cardinals, that's a very solid deal. And if Lane does take that step forward and emerge as a starting cornerback, this would be a long-term deal at a very team-friendly price for Seattle.
Mitchell Schwartz (Chiefs): B
The Browns seem to have adopted a strange tactic of negotiating very publicly with their free agents in the media, having clearly leaked that they were done negotiating with both Travis Benjamin and Mitchell Schwartz. The word "yanked" was brought up with regard to Schwartz's contract offer, and you can even picture owner Jimmy Haslam furiously pulling some paper off a glass coffee table and giving himself a paper cut. Schwartz is the fourth member of Cleveland's young core to leave this offseason, joining Benjamin, Alex Mack and Tashaun Gipson. While the Browns weren't winning with them, they also don't have ready-made replacements for most of them, either.
Schwartz will step in with the Chiefs as a direct swap for Donald Stephenson, who signed a three-year deal with the Broncos. His five-year, $33 million deal with $20.7 million guaranteed leaves him with the third-highest average salary for a right tackle in the league, behind Lane Johnson and in a group with Bryan Bulaga, Jermey Parnell, Marcus Gilbert, Bobby Massie and Austin Howard, all of whom make between $6 million and $6.8 million per season. Schwartz is very likely the best option out of that group. The only thing you can really say is that the right tackle market hasn't emerged as quickly as some might have expected this offseason, but this isn't an outlandish deal for a guy entering his age-26 season.
Rishard Matthews (Titans): C+
We're learning a lot about what the Tennessee offense is going to look like in 2016, and the early returns are a little confusing. The Titans have signed Ben Jones and have interest in adding former Broncos guard Louis Vasquez, which seems odd given that they already have two first-rounders up front and seem to be likely to take Laremy Tunsil with the first overall pick. They've traded for DeMarco Murray. Mike Mularkey came out on Thursday and suggested that the Titans were going to move QB Marcus Mariota under center more frequently in 2016.
Now, with one oversized target on the outside in Dorial Green-Beckham and a second one returning from injury in Justin Hunter, the Titans have added a third larger weapon in Matthews. The 6-foot Matthews has to win with his size in lieu of his athleticism, something that limited his effectiveness in Miami. After a start-and-stop beginning to his career, Matthews finally found a starting role by working his way ahead of Greg Jennings and Kenny Stills in 2015. The returns, in a small sample, were pretty impressive: Matthews posted the league's second-best individual DVOA among qualifying wideouts, catching 70 percent of his passes despite his average pass traveling 10.6 yards in the air. The only other players with that sort of typical distance per pass -- between 10 and 12 yards -- who caught more than 70 percent of their passes were Antonio Brown, Jeremy Maclin, and Jermaine Kearse.
Matthews' three-year, $15 million deal doesn't bode well for Hunter or Kendall Wright, both of whom can now expect smaller roles. It's not a terrible deal by any means, but it would have fit better with other teams who need height on the outside. The Patriots were linked to Matthews, and that would have made sense for them as a Brandon LaFell replacement. They've been rumored to have interest in several wideouts, actually; the Pats reportedly missed out on Marvin Jones and want to meet with fellow Bengals product Mohamed Sanu, who recently visited the Falcons. It's possible that the Patriots are looking more for a bargain and a player archetype than they are for a specific receiver, but it's interesting to see them sniffing around veteran free-agent wideouts.
Danny Trevathan (Bears): B
It's hard to imagine a team being much thinner at inside linebacker than the Bears were last season, given that they were starting a converted pass-rusher playing his third position (Shea McClellin) and a second-year rookie free agent (Christian Jones). It showed. The Bears were 30th in the league in DVOA on passes to tight ends, part of a dismal defense that finished 31st in overall defensive DVOA. John Fox and Vic Fangio won't stand for that. Things had to change.
After re-signing Tracy Porter, their first step toward a new direction involved bringing in a success story from Fox's time in Denver. Trevathan was a sixth-round pick with athleticism and good football instincts who dropped in the draft because he lacked ideal size. Scouting reports suggested that he wouldn't be able to get off blocks as an inside linebacker in a 3-4. And while that still may not be his strong suit, he's effective enough as a run defender and has the athleticism to compete with just about any tight end in football. At times in Denver, teams targeted him because they were so afraid of throwing at the Broncos' cornerbacks (look at the game against the Patriots game for an example), but Trevathan is a useful contributor.
The only downside might be that the Broncos were able to consistently generate middle linebackers out of thin air during Fox's time there -- Trevathan was a relatively anonymous late-round pick, and Brandon Marshall was a Jaguars castoff. So they might have been able to find worthwhile contributors in the later rounds without committing money to Trevathan. Even with that in mind, Trevathan's four-year, $24.5 million deal isn't painful given Chicago's rosy cap situation. It's really a two-year deal, at which point the Bears should be in much better shape defensively.
J.R. Sweezy (Buccaneers): C-
Watch the Seahawks on tape as a layman and Sweezy looks closer to being a replacement-level lineman than he does somebody worth the five-year, $32.5 million deal he just received from the Bucs. It's easier to see flaws in pass blocking than run blocking, and Sweezy hasn't been a great pass-blocker in Seattle. At his worst -- the playoff loss to the Panthers being a good example -- Sweezy and the interior of Seattle's offensive line in general would be an enormous liability in pass protection.
And yet, it's fair to say that the NFL disagrees. There was reportedly plenty of interest in Sweezy around the league, including from the Seahawks, whom the Buccaneers had to outbid for his services. When you think about how the Seattle rushing game barely skipped a beat with Marshawn Lynch out of the lineup, you have to give Sweezy some of the credit. He's a pretty good run-blocker. And while that doesn't justify giving him $14.5 million guaranteed, it helps explain -- although again, not necessarily justify -- what otherwise looked like a bizarrely aggressive decision by a team that often makes mistakes in free agency.
Richie Incognito (Bills) B+
You don't have to like Incognito given what we know about how he has conducted himself in the past. Perhaps you shouldn't. By all accounts, though, 2015 was a banner year for Incognito, who returned to the league and conducted himself reasonably well off the field while playing at a much higher level on it. Incognito wasn't performing particularly well during his final year in Miami, but he was a deserved Pro Bowler during his first season with the Bills.
Entering his age-33 season, this was likely his last chance to get significant guaranteed money, and it was probably a good fit for both sides that he stayed in Buffalo. The Bills have one of the worst cap situations in all of football, but the three-year, $15.8 million deal Incognito signed is unlikely to see its third year and really profiles as a two-year, $9.1 million deal. That's pretty fair value for both sides.
Sean Smith (Raiders): B+
It's unfair to compare this year's contracts to last year's bad decisions, but let's do it anyway. Smith got four years and $40 million with $20 million guaranteed heading into his age-28 season. Byron Maxwell got six years and $63 million with $25 million guaranteed heading into his age-27 season. Like the 6-foot-1 Maxwell, the 6-foot-3 Smith is prized for his height and ability to control receivers at the line of scrimmage, an asset which is rapidly becoming more valuable in light of what Seattle has been able to do with its cornerbacks. Smith has also been better than Maxwell was heading into 2015 despite playing with lesser talents, which isn't a knock on Eric Berry and Marcus Peters, because nobody else on the planet is Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas.
The Kansas City defense suddenly got good once Smith returned from a three-game suspension last season. They allowed 29.7 points per game with Smith on the sideline and 15.2 points after he showed up. Smith wasn't the only reason why that change occurred, but he certainly helped. You have to hand it to Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie: He came into the offseason with a few critical holes and came away with the most impressive offensive lineman (Kelechi Osemele), a promising pass-rusher (Bruce Irvin), and an upper-echelon cornerback (Smith). And unlike the past, when the Raiders had to guarantee money to players who were on the tail end of their careers, they were able to sign players in their prime without making exorbitant guarantees. That's a promising change.
Matt Forte (Jets): C+
After having oodles of cap space to burn last year, an exorbitant spending spree by the 2015 Jets left the 2016 group desperate for every cent they could pull out of the couch cushions. (This is what you have to look forward to, 2017 Giants!) The Jets weren't going to be able to re-sign Chris Ivory, given what he got in Jacksonville, and Bilal Powell hasn't shown enough to justify a new deal as a primary back. Mike Maccagnan could have waited until the dying days of free agency to go after a cheaper option or find a running back in a very deep draft class, but instead, he went after a veteran and gave Forte a three-year deal worth $12 million, with $8 million of that money guaranteed.
The structure of the deal suggests that the Jets committed two years of guaranteed money to Forte, and I don't know if that's a wise idea. Forte is now on the wrong side of 30 and already has more than 2,000 carries on his legs. After a Pro Bowl season in 2013, his yards per carry have fallen off from 4.6 to a 4.0 average over the past two seasons. He's still a smart, efficient runner, but he has lost enough acceleration to the point where he isn't going to hit very many home runs. After producing 15 runs of 35 yards or more from 2010 to 2013, Forte hasn't had a single such run since. (To be fair, he does have receptions of 38 and 56 yards over that span.) Conventional wisdom suggests running backs in their 30s won't produce the way they have in years past, and while Forte's versatility could make him a useful contributor, history says the Jets are likely to regret this sort of deal.
Ladarius Green (Steelers): C+
Pittsburgh needed to add a tight end after missing out on Maxx Williams in last year's draft and seeing Heath Miller retire, likely in advance of what would have otherwise been his release by the team. You can see the logic in adding Green with the idea of unlocking a would-be vertical weapon in a Chargers offense that was built around throwing shorter passes. Green has the size and speed to torch opposing linebackers and jump over tinier safeties, and he has shown flashes of brilliance during his time behind Antonio Gates in San Diego. Green's four-year, $20 million deal isn't incredibly onerous, given that it only includes $4.75 million guaranteed. The cap hit for the deal rises from $2.4 million to $6.2 million next year, but the Steelers can get out of the contract by paying $3.5 million in dead money if Green totally washes out.
At the same time, though, we've been waiting for Green to break out for years, and, well, we're still waiting. His best season -- by far -- was 2015, when he caught 37 passes for 429 yards. Chicago's No. 2 tight end, Zach Miller, caught 34 passes for 439 yards, and he's not getting $5 million per year. There's a chance that Green will morph into a Delanie Walker, a secondary tight end in San Francisco with one notable skill (blocking) who emerged as an all-around star with a bigger role in Tennessee. There's also a chance he'll become a Jared Cook, who was a situational tight end with ridiculous athleticism and downfield ability in Tennessee who never grew into anything more than that after getting a big-money deal from the Rams. Given how many passes are already going around to Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and Le'Veon Bell, it's hard to see the Steelers getting the most out of Green's skill set, even if they get more out of it than the Chargers.
Wednesday, March 9
These are ordered from best grades to worst grades.
Charles Johnson (Panthers): A
Value is everything. At just over $15 million, Johnson's original cap hold was untenable. It was insane to even consider paying a 29-year-old who had one sack last year that much money. The Panthers incurred a $4 million dead cap charge by releasing Johnson, but after bringing him back on a one-year, $3 million deal yesterday, they'll get Johnson's services for 2016 at just over $7 million. That's remarkably team-friendly, and it speaks to just how badly Johnson wanted to stay around Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott, given how his people made sure to get out the word that Johnson turned down $6 million per year elsewhere. To get Johnson to agree to a one-year, $3 million deal, even if it includes further incentives, is one of the most impressive moves Dave Gettleman's pulled as Panthers GM.
Brandon Brooks (Eagles): B+
At this point, Howie Roseman is really just trying to reverse what Chip Kelly did last offseason. After Kelly let starting guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans go and replaced them with, well, nobody, Philadelphia's offense crashed to a halt. There were other factors, of course, and the Eagles' offense may continue to struggle under new head coach Doug Pederson in 2016, but it won't be for lack of expensive guards! Brooks comes over from the Texans on a five-year, $40 million deal, using much of the cap space freed up by the trades of Byron Maxwell and DeMarco Murray. It's a valuable signing at a position of significant need for Philly.
Regardless of where Brooks ends up, he'll be part of one of the more freakishly athletic guard-tackle tandems in football, given that he'll be lining up next to either Lane Johnson or Jason Peters. Brooks was effective in a zone scheme under Gary Kubiak in 2013, and he has only gotten better with Bill O'Brien mixing his run-blocking up a little more regularly over the past two seasons. At 343 pounds, he isn't exactly the sort of undersized lineman who might struggle to play in a more traditional scheme, and his signing may be a hint that the Eagles might try to run more power concepts under Pederson in 2016.
George Iloka (Bengals): B+
It's hard to fathom why Cincinnati got so close to letting Iloka hit the market to begin with. The Bengals rarely shop in free agency and tend to go out of their way to keep the players they want around. So it was a surprise to see a 25-year-old emerging star -- who has gotten better with each passing season -- hit the free market. The Bengals may have gotten a better deal if they locked Iloka up in February, but the price tag isn't egregious for a player with his ability, given that he's a stout run-defender who can credibly chip in against tight ends in coverage. Iloka's five-year, $30 million deal fully guarantees just $5 million and keeps his base salary under $5 million for the entirety of his deal. It's a quietly effective deal for a team that does more right than its reputation suggests.
Ben Jones (Titans): B+
The Titans found reasonable value in signing away an interior lineman from a division rival. Jones started at both guard and center during his four years with the Texans, moving to the pivot after Houston moved on from long-time starter Chris Myers last season. The Titans are likely set at guard with Chance Warmack and Jeremiah Poutasi, but center Brian Schwenke hasn't been able to stay healthy and is coming off of a dislocated ankle last year. Tennessee only had to guarantee $7.5 million to bring Jones over, which means they can get out of the deal after two years if need be. Given that Alex Mack is looking at something in the $10 million-per-year range, that's a very friendly deal for new Titans general manager Jon Robinson.
Lamar Miller (Texans): B+
Houston gave its new quarterback a top running back, too, by signing Miller to a four-year deal worth $26 million with $14 million guaranteed. As was the case with Osweiler, this seems to make sense as a deal with two guaranteed seasons and a small buyout thereafter if the Texans want to move on. That would allow Miller to hit free agency again at 28 if he breaks out with the Texans -- a move that will be tougher, given that Houston's lost a pair of starting offensive linemen in Brandon Brooks and Ben Jones. It did bring in Jeff Allen from the Chiefs on a four-year, $28 million deal, but Allen isn't regarded as being in Brooks' class as a guard.
Miller remains one of the more fascinating backs in the league by virtue of how the Dolphins seemed to flirt with making him their primary offensive weapon before abandoning the move inexplicably the following week. There are worse things you can do in life than fail to be Miami's cup of tea, but it's also tough to project Miller to be a 300-carry back until we've actually seen him do it. Then again, it's hard to find a skill Miller doesn't have. He doesn't fumble at any sort of crazy rate. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He can break big gains. He's been a perfectly reasonable goal-line back, scoring on 42 percent of his touches inside the 5-yard line (the league average is 40 percent).
He hasn't had serious injury concerns as a pro, in part assuredly because the Dolphins haven't overworked him, but you'd rather bet on Miller keeping this up over a larger workload than you would on Doug Martin or Chris Ivory at similar price tags. It's always a dangerous game to place any faith in a running back being paid market value, but Miller is one of the few guys with upside to burn over what he'll be paid.
Kelechi Osemele (Raiders): B+
One of the more obvious fits of team and player heading into this offseason, it's no surprise that Osemele will find himself wearing silver and black. The Raiders have built their turnaround upon a strong, expensive offensive line, and with Donald Penn likely leaving town, they were in need of a left tackle. Osemele has spent most of his pro career at guard and only suited up at the line's most important position during the final month of a lost regular season in Baltimore, but that was enough for Reggie McKenzie, who has been comfortable placing bets on how a player's performed in a small sample in the past; remember that he nearly signed Rodger Saffold to a massive deal after seeing him move to guard for the final month of the 2013 season, only for Saffold to "fail his physical".
The Raiders had oodles of cap room, which allowed them to outspend virtually all of Osemele's other suitors. The structure of Osemele's five-year, $60-million deal isn't yet public, but the implication is that he's being paid like he'll be a left tackle. The largest cap hit for any guard in the league is $8.1 million; 16 different tackles make more than that figure, including the $14 million cap hit for Tyron Smith this season. If Osemele lives up to expectations at tackle, this is a good deal. If he's merely one of the league's better guards, it's an overpay for a good player in the prime of his career. The only real concern about Osemele is his surgically-repaired back.
As for the Ravens, it's hard to avoid noticing the sheer amount of young talent they've been shedding on an annual basis in free agency. Young players who could and really should have been part of the core of Baltimore's future -- Osemele, Pernell McPhee, Arthur Jones, and even Torrey Smith -- have left in consecutive offseasons. Their deals haven't necessarily worked out elsewhere, but in part, they've left because the Ravens have made bets on other young players who haven't worked out, like Lardarius Webb and Dennis Pitta. (The deleterious impact of cutting Ray Rice didn't help matters.) The Ravens know what they're doing, and when they're not being waylaid by staggering amounts of injuries, they do just fine. Even with that being said, nobody likes losing young stars like Osemele, even if he'll net Baltimore a compensatory pick next year.
Brock Osweiler (Texans): B+
Count me among the many who never thought we'd end up here -- with the Broncos suddenly looking down the barrel of Trevor Siemian as the No. 1 quarterback on their depth chart. But here we are. After benching Osweiler in Week 17 and failing to come to terms with their former second-round pick on a deal before free agency, the Broncos have lost the 25-year-old signal-caller to the Texans on a four-year deal worth $72 million. While we don't yet have the contract structure, Osweiler turned down $30 million guaranteed from the Broncos to get $37 million in guarantees from Houston, so it's likely that he'll have the first two years of his deal mostly guaranteed with the Texans. If Houston general manager Rick Smith had to get creative with the contract structure to fit Osweiler, Lamar Miller and new guard Jeff Allen under the cap, that would drop this grade down to a B.
When I previewed the offseason for the AFC South, I noted that Osweiler's seven professional starts were remarkably similar to incumbent Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer's first eight starts (including one ending quickly with a torn ACL). That's no less true today than it was last month. The difference, you can argue, is that Osweiler has a much higher ceiling than Hoyer did after his eight starts. Osweiler doesn't turn 26 until November, and he came into the league as a quarterback with prototypical size and arm strength and little else. Hoyer didn't have the same sort of tools.
If Osweiler improved studying underneath Peyton Manning, Gary Kubiak and Adam Gase -- and continues to improve under Bill O'Brien, who has manufactured an ambulatory offense with some pretty middling quarterbacks over the past two years -- the Texans could come away with a promising quarterback without having to give up a draft pick. He's unlikely to be a bargain, but given what precious few options the Texans had, taking a two-year shot at Osweiler makes a lot of sense.
As for the Broncos, it simply appears that they weren't able to convince Osweiler that it was worth staying in Denver. You have to imagine, despite what Osweiler said publicly, that he was hurt by Kubiak's decision to bench him in favor of Manning in Week 17. The Broncos will hit the drawing board, and with plenty of cap space freed up by Manning's retirement, Denver can go after a short-term alternative like Ryan Fitzpatrick or try to buy low on Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin III. That doesn't sound all that promising, but remember that the Broncos just won a Super Bowl with a limited Manning under center. They may very well look back and miss Malik Jackson more than they miss Osweiler.
Jason Pierre-Paul (Giants): B+
The Giants badly need some semblance of a pass rush, having finished with just 21 sacks last season, the second-fewest in all of football. It seems odd to suggest that bringing back a player who was part of that 21-sack haul would be a good idea, but there are obvious fireworks-related arguments surrounding JPP's lack of production in 2015. He finished with one sack in eight games during an abbreviated season, but it's reasonable to expect more out of Pierre-Paul in 2016 a year further removed from his accident. More than anything, though, the price is right; the Giants couldn't realistically commit to JPP on a long-term deal, and they saved about $5 million versus what it would have cost to slap Pierre-Paul with the franchise tag. That's a victory.
Dwayne Allen (Colts): B
Allen has been a frustrating figure during his four years in Indy. When healthy, he has been a plus blocker and a competent receiver, and the list of tight ends in the NFL who are average-or-better at both those things really doesn't go very long. His totals aren't especially impressive, but Indy's leveraged him as a blocker while using fellow free agent Coby Fleener as their primary receiving tight end. The issue has been staying on the field; Allen has missed 21 of Indy's last 48 games with various maladies, most recently a calf ailment which cost him three games in 2015.
Under that microscope, Allen's four-year, $29.4 million deal looks like an overpay at first. Allen will have a $8.9 million cap hit in 2016, the second-highest figure for a tight end in football behind Jimmy Graham. The structure of the deal, though, makes a lot of sense for Indy. With Andrew Luck coming due for an even bigger raise in 2017, it's logical for Ryan Grigson to get as much money onto the 2016 cap as possible. And indeed, Allen's cap hit drops to $6 million during 2017 and 2018, with no guaranteed money on the deal after 2016. This is really a two-year deal, and given that Allen's role will likely expand in a second season under Rob Chudzinski, it's one that could look good for the Colts.
Tashaun Gipson (Jaguars): B
Free safety has been a mess for the Jaguars since they hired Gus Bradley, who coached Earl Thomas in Seattle. For Bradley, the past few years must've been like replacing your Rolls-Royce with a particularly ornery Chevy Caprice. Tashaun Gipson isn't Earl Thomas -- nobody else on the planet is Earl Thomas -- but he is a massive upgrade over Sergio Brown for the Jags. Jacksonville has a league-low 26 interceptions since Bradley arrived in 2013, and Gipson has 13 picks in 40 games by himself over that same timeframe. Gipson also doesn't turn 26 until August, which makes him a much more logical fit for the Jags and their timeframe for contention than somebody like Eric Weddle.
Alex Mack (Falcons): B
Having struggled to replace longtime center Todd McClure since the 13-year veteran retired after 2012, Atlanta went to the very top of the market and came away with the best center available. Mack excelled during his brief stint under current Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland, which lasted only five games in 2014 before Mack went down with a season-ending fractured fibula. (Browns fans once noted that Cleveland averaged 26.8 points per game before Mack's injury and 15 points per game afterward as a way to regain hope about the 2015 season, but that didn't last.)
Peter King reports that Mack's five-year deal will average $9.5 million per season, which will keep Mack among the highest-paid centers in football. You could argue that it's a little dangerous to pay that much for a 30-year-old offensive lineman one year removed from a serious lower leg injury, but centers seem to last longer than linemen at other positions. Jeff Saturday, playing in a zone scheme, was effective into his late 30s as a member of the Colts. The Falcons are still built upon a wildly high-variance stars-and-scrubs strategy, and they'll need Mack to stay healthy, but this should give them a massive upgrade at what has been a point of weakness for several years.
Malik Jackson (Jaguars): B
The Jaguars needed to get out of their habit of paying market value or better salaries to questionable players, given how rarely those contracts have succeeded for general manager Dave Caldwell over the last few years. The first wave of those deals flamed out, with Zane Beadles and Toby Gerhart released over the past week. The Jags needed to invest in the top of the market and go after the sort of superstar they can't easily acquire for cheap, leveraging their massive cap room to simply outspend the competition for a top-tier player.
Is Jackson that guy? It's hard to say, but he has far more of a pedigree than the likes of Davon House or Jermey Parnell. Jackson's contract -- reportedly six years and $90 million with a staggering $42 million guaranteed -- is surely based in part on what he did during Denver's march to the Super Bowl, where he looked like one of the best defensive players in all of football (albeit surrounded by a pair of the best pass-rushers in football). He's very good, but I'm not sure that three-game sample is representative of his usual impact. Jackson had 25 tackles against the run and 16 quarterback knockdowns during the regular season; in the postseason, he had eight run tackles and four QB hits. There's far more to Jackson's game than penetrating and making big plays, but everyone noticed Jackson in January because he was penetrating and making big plays.
It's an overpay, but even if Jackson is the guy he looked like during the regular season, he'll be an enormous upgrade on the likes of Tyson Alualu and Roy Miller on the interior for the Jaguars. With Jackson and Jared Odrick joined by 2015 first-rounder Dante Fowler (who missed the entire season after tearing his ACL), the Jags have one of the more expensively-assembled defensive lines in all of football. If the league's seventh-worst defense is going to get better, now is the time for Gus Bradley.
Haloti Ngata (Lions): B
After re-signing rehabbing defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker to a one-year deal, the Lions brought back the more notable part of their defensive tackle rotation on Wednesday with on two-year, $12-million contract. It's a pretty low-risk deal for the Lions, and a hefty pay cut for the 32-year-old Ngata, who had double-digit cap hits between 2012 and 2015. Ngata is guaranteed $6 million and due $6.25 million in 2016, basically making this a one-year deal. Ngata wasn't the devastating interior player he was in Baltimore, but like the rest of the Detroit defense, he got better as the season went along. The Lions wouldn't have been able to find a similarly-talented player in the marketplace for anything resembling this sort of money.
Olivier Vernon (Giants): B
Well, nobody can accuse the Giants of not going for it. Needing desperately to upgrade his team's pass rush, general manager Jerry Reese first re-signed Jason Pierre-Paul to a one-year deal. Once the Dolphins removed the transition tag from Vernon, the Giants were rumored to be in the running to come away with the Miami defensive end, but nobody expected the numbers to fall quite where they did. Vernon's deal is staggering: He gets five years and $85 million, with $52.5 million guaranteed and $54 million over the first three years of his deal. That's awfully close to what J.J. Watt (six years, $100 million, $52 million guaranteed) got from the Texans. Too close.
The Giants are paying Vernon as though he'll be a superstar pass-rusher over the next three years. Has he been? Depends on which number you look at. Vernon produced 25.5 sacks over his three years as a starter in Miami, including his lone double-digit-sack season in 2013, when he produced 11.5 of those 25.5 sacks. He also spent that entire run playing on a line with Cameron Wake and/or Ndamukong Suh, which should tell you how often he saw double-teams. He's getting paid like a guy who can routinely beat them now.
The more subtle number is what Vernon did last year. Despite posting a mere 7.5 sacks, Vernon knocked down the opposing quarterback 36 times, which was the third-highest total in football behind Watt (50) and Aaron Donald (37). Vernon also chipped in with 10 tackles for loss on running plays, which was tied for fifth in the league. Even with Wake out for most of the year with a torn Achilles, Vernon proved he's a playmaker, even if the sack totals don't (yet) reflect it. There's some evidence that guys with crazy amounts of quarterback hits can turn those knockdowns into future sacks, with Ezekiel Ansah and Carlos Dunlap serving as recent examples. Vernon will need to make the same sort of leap to justify this massive outlay in 2016 and beyond.
Titans acquire DeMarco Murray, Eagles' fourth-rounder; Eagles acquire Titans' fourth-rounder
This is essentially a contract dump. It's unclear exactly where those picks will fall until the league announces its compensatory selections for 2016, but the typical 13-pick swing in the fourth round is worth about a high seventh-round pick, so the Eagles aren't getting a ton out of this deal in terms of draft compensation. Instead, they gain salary relief; they'll eat $4 million in dead money this year and save $9 million in money that was previously guaranteed to Murray, including $7 million in 2016 and $2 million in 2017. Philly will likely now keep Ryan Mathews, who could serve as the team's primary back after outperforming Murray last season.
For the Titans, it's a defensible move, but not necessarily a wise one. It's hard to see how adding another expensive running back to their books after years of striking out on spending at the position makes a lot of sense. And while it's unfair to blame new general manager Jon Robinson for the mistakes of the past, he spent the bulk of his scouting career in New England, where Bill Belichick has virtually never devoted serious assets to running backs and been happy with the outcome. (The trade for Corey Dillon worked, but the subsequent contract extension Dillon signed was a mess, and the Patriots wouldn't mind taking back the first-round pick they used on Laurence Maroney.) The Titans aren't one running back away from contention, so why devote money to a veteran back like Murray?
Murray's deal has been restructured in a way that provides a little more upside for the Titans, but even that's odd, given that the one thing they really had to burn in 2016 is cap space. If Tennessee had stuck with Murray's old deal, they could have gone year-to-year without incurring any dead cap figures if they wanted to move on from the former Cowboys star. Now, having guaranteed Murray an additional $3.25 million next year, the Titans will have to hope Murray shows more in 2016 than he did during his disastrous 2015. (To be fair, given that Murray's agent and the Eagles were both looking for a trade destination, Murray may very well have insisted on additional guaranteed money to head to Tennessee.)
The upside is that Murray should be far more productive in Tennessee than he was during his short stint in Philadelphia. Mike Mularkey has a track record of relying on a bell-cow back, going back to his days with Willis McGahee in Buffalo, and if Murray can stay healthy, the Titans should be able to generate a far more effective running game than they had with Antonio Andrews and David Cobb pencilled in as the starters. The opportunity cost of not finding a cheap option (or spending the money used on Murray elsewhere) hurts, but you can understand why Robinson would want to take a swing at a guy who looked like an MVP candidate as recently as 2014.
Alex Boone (Vikings): C+
After holding out during his time with the 49ers to try and get a long-term contract extension, Boone finally got out from underneath the team-friendly deal he signed in 2011 (and adjusted in 2014) and picked up a more meaningful contract in Minnesota. Boone's four-year, $27 million deal guarantees him $10 million, which isn't quite what Boone might have been imagining during his holdout but reflects the fact that Boone hasn't been playing as well lately. After looking like one of the league's best guards from 2012-13, Boone slipped badly after his holdout in 2014 and didn't look much better amid the decay of the 49ers last season. The Vikings also re-signed guard Mike Harris, who probably will be a utility lineman and insurance against Boone failing to find his form in his new digs.
Chase Daniel (Eagles): C+
Expensive square peg in square hole is simple enough. Daniel's signing may end up as far less important than Brooks' in the long run, but it's more interesting to talk about. It seemed like the Eagles were moving on from their reported interest in Daniel after they re-signed Sam Bradford last week, but the $22 million Philly guaranteed to Bradford didn't dissuade them from bringing in Pederson's former backup quarterback in Kansas City. Daniel received a three-year, $21-million deal with $12 million fully guaranteed to follow Pederson to the City of Brotherly Love.
Daniel is getting paid more than your typical backup quarterback -- even your upper-echelon backups like Mark Sanchez are usually getting no more than $6 million per year, with just one year fully guaranteed. (In related news, expect Sanchez, now a third-stringer, to be cut in the near future.) That's a hint as to how Pederson and the Eagles value Daniel. While we don't know the specific structure of Daniel's deal, the length, the guarantee and the incentives (which would make the deal worth up to $36 million) all suggest that the Eagles wanted to add some built-in value if Daniel does emerge as the starter. (Daniel's last deal in Kansas City voided if he received regular playing time.) It's likely that the Eagles will begin the season with Bradford as their starter, but they're preparing for an injury or a disappointing performance with a higher-upside option than Sanchez. We still have no idea if Daniel is any good, which is why this grade isn't higher, but it's a fascinatingly aggressive move by a front office that is having a very sound week.
Bruce Irvin (Raiders): C+
Contract terms haven't been revealed, but this is a more curious move. Irvin never developed into the Aldon Smith-esque pass rusher the Seahawks were hoping he would become after taking him in the first round of the 2012 draft, but he still accrued 22 sacks in four seasons. Seattle moved him to strong-side linebacker in their base packages after his first season, but routinely brought him onto the line of scrimmage on passing downs. He should end up there regularly as a 4-3 defensive end for Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., who was formerly Irvin's linebackers coach in Seattle. Irvin unquestionably benefited from the presence of Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril in Seattle, but in Oakland, he'll get to enjoy one-on-ones while opposing offenses sweat Khalil Mack, so that shouldn't be much different.
Janoris Jenkins (Giants): C+
Giants general manager Jerry Reese has spent the last two offseasons going after veterans in the middle of the market, but the tactic hasn't helped. Reese hit on Robert Ayers (now a free agent), while the likes of J.T. Thomas, J.D. Walton, and Jonathan Casillas did little to push the Giants forward. The one exception Reese has made to that strategy over the last couple of years was to sign Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and he has added a second high-priced cornerback by signing Jenkins away from the Rams on a deal worth more than $12 million per year.
Jenkins will be paid like a top cornerback, but he wasn't really that guy in St. Louis. He's been a DeAngelo Hall-type corner, an athletic ballhawk who will look like a superstar the weeks he guesses right and a liability the weeks he doesn't. It's no coincidence that both Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson suddenly looked more effective in 2014 and 2015, given that they were playing behind arguably the league's most terrifying pass rush. The average pass against the Rams last year came 2.31 seconds after the quarterback took the snap, which was the quickest time in the league. Against the Giants, the average pass came 2.58 seconds after the snap, which was the fifth-longest time in football. That doesn't sound like a big difference, but over 600 pass attempts, it's nearly a 12 percent increase in the amount of time Jenkins would have to spend in coverage downfield. That's a big risk.
Dolphins acquire Byron Maxwell, Kiko Alonso and the 13th overall pick of the NFL draft; Eagles acquire No. 8 overall pick
Jumping from No. 13 to No. 8 in the first round sounds like a more meaningful improvement than it's likely to be in reality. Chase Stuart's empirical draft value model suggests that that five-pick leap is roughly equivalent to the 140th pick in a typical draft. In other words, this move amounts to a selection at the top of the fifth round. That's not going to shift the needle dramatically for Philadelphia's draft capital, although it helps, given that the Eagles are down a second-rounder this year thanks to the Sam Bradford trade.
It's shocking, though, that the Eagles were able to get anything in a swap for Maxwell's onerous contract. Philly eats $4.8 million in dead money on its 2016 cap, but the Eagles will save $8.5 million on their 2016 cap and will have the dead money off their cap for 2017 and beyond. The Dolphins will likely restructure Maxwell's $8.5 million base salary as a signing bonus to create more cap space and sign more free agents -- as is their wont -- but there's still little upside on this deal. Maxwell was erratic at best in his first year outside of the Seattle cocoon, and at $10 million per year going forward, he'll need to play like a No. 1 cornerback to justify his salary, even with the rising tide of cornerback contracts.
Oddly, the Dolphins may get more out of Alonso, who will likely move back to play middle linebacker in a 4-3 after getting lost in Philly's 3-4 look. With one year remaining on Alonso's rookie deal, he offers the best chance of generating surplus value in this deal for Miami.
Mark Barron (Rams): C
The Rams deserve a lot of credit for buying low on Barron and constructing a role that played to his strengths. Seen as a prototypical safety coming out of Alabama, Barron never seemed to grow comfortable with his coverage responsibilities in Tampa, leading the Bucs to dump him off to St. Louis for fourth- and sixth-round picks. The Rams eyed the success of college safety Deone Bucannon as a linebacker in Arizona and made a similar move with Barron, playing him as their weakside linebacker after Alec Ogletree went down because of a season-ending injury. With Ogletree back, the Rams are moving him inside to replace the released James Laurinaitis.
It's not crazy for a team to think a player like Barron would be valuable -- the Panthers have shown what teams can do with two freakishly-athletic linebackers in coverage on every play. Barron's deal, though, appears to be massive. There's no word yet on the guaranteed money, but Barron is getting five years and $45 million to stay with the Rams. The only 4-3 outside linebackers making that sort of money at the moment are Thomas Davis and Tampa's Lavonte David, and they've simply been much more impactful pros than Barron. This isn't indefensible, and Barron showed promise last year, but it's awfully speculative, too.
Travis Benjamin (Chargers): C-
Reports suggest the Chargers are giving Benjamin more than $6 million per year, which seems like an aggressive valuation for a guy who only really has one season of NFL competence on his resume. You can make the fair argument Benjamin would look a lot better with Philip Rivers throwing him passes than the assorted flotsam the Browns have rolled out at quarterback over his four years in Cleveland, but Benjamin was a mess at wideout during his first three seasons in the league, catching just 41 of the 96 passes thrown to him for a brutal 42.7 percent catch rate. Even for a downfield weapon, that's bad. He got up to 54.4 percent on his 125 targets last year, but much of that came on screens and shorter passes. Benjamin caught 47.2 percent of the passes thrown to him traveling 8 or more yards in the air, still comfortably below the league average of 52.8 percent.
Benjamin will likely take over the Malcom Floyd role in San Diego's offense, and while it makes sense to see the Chargers target a veteran to fill that spot, this is a lot of money for a receiver who may very well be fifth in line for targets behind Keenan Allen, Antonio Gates, Stevie Johnson and Danny Woodhead. Benjamin has enough upside to make the deal comprehensible from San Diego's perspective, but this is money the Chargers really needed to throw at their offensive line or 28th-ranked defense. Benjamin does add value as a punt returner, where the Chargers struggled mightily last year, but solid returners come a lot cheaper than this.
Tamba Hali (Chiefs): C
Once one of the league's best pass rushers, Hali has slowed down significantly over the past couple of years, producing 12.5 sacks combined during 2014 and 2015 after averaging 12 sacks per season from 2010 to '13. He also had only 29 quarterback hits over that two-year span, and has never been a great run defender over the course of his career. Hali can still be a useful player, but the 32-year-old has been in decline for several years now, and the Chiefs are committed to him through 2018. Hali's three-year, $22-million deal includes fully guaranteed money due in both 2016 and 2017, meaning that the Chiefs have no intention of replacing Hali with 2014 first-rounder Dee Ford anytime soon. It was a concession the Chiefs probably had to make to keep Hali, given how crazy the pass-rusher market was on Wednesday, but it's a tough one for a player who might not be an above-average starter this time next year.
Damon Harrison (Giants): C
The Giants further upgraded their defensive line by adding a massive body on the interior. The 350-pound Harrison won't have to travel far, given that he spent his first four seasons with the Jets, but he will likely be moving into a new house. After making a total of $3.8 million during his four seasons on the green side of the Meadowlands, Harrison signed a five-year, $46-million deal with $23 million guaranteed to become an interior presence for the Giants.
Harrison was a very good player for the Jets, and his best years could still be ahead of him at 27, but there are reasons to be hesitant about this move for the Giants. Harrison was surrounded by stars during his last run, with Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson alongside him for the vast majority of the past three seasons. He won't exactly be surrounded by scrubs, given that the Giants spent their entire offseason allowance on defensive linemen on Tuesday, but it might make Harrison look like a more important asset than he would have been on a lesser team.
More interestingly, Harrison is moving from playing the nose as a 3-4 tackle to likely lining up in a gap as a 4-3 tackle under Steve Spagnuolo. The Giants can still play Harrison as a two-gap tackle on the interior, but Spagnuolo has had success in the past bringing his defensive ends inside on passing downs and getting 250-pound guys to rush the passer against overmatched guards, and the league has followed suit. Harrison did play some as a one-gap tackle under Todd Bowles last year, but he had four quarterback hits and a half-sack; penetrating into the backfield isn't really his game. It just seems as though, in a 4-3, Harrison likely ends up as a two-down player in a league that's shifting more and more toward the pass. It'll be hard for him to deliver value that way.
William Hayes (Rams): C
A high-quality backup, Hayes took over as a starting end amid Chris Long's injuries, and basically served as the Bill Wennington or B.J. Armstrong on the league's deepest defensive line, starting 20 games over the last two seasons. His numbers as a pass-rusher weren't especially impressive -- 9.5 sacks and 19 quarterback knockdowns during that span -- given that he was on a line with Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald. The Rams might have been better off trusting that they could plug just about anybody in at left defensive end and generate effective play. But instead they opted to keep the 30-year-old Hayes on a three-year deal, which could be worth up to $21 million. Hayes is a solid contributor, and we don't know how much of that is guaranteed, but the Rams have too many holes elsewhere for that to be a valuable contract.
Marvin Jones (Lions): C
By virtue of the fact that he's replacing a future Hall of Famer, Jones is already up against unfair expectations in Detroit. It's not reasonable to expect Jones to match -- or even come close to matching -- Calvin Johnson. Let's get that out of the way before we evaluate this decision.
With that said, it's awful tough to see Jones being worth $8 million per year. The track record of No. 2 wideouts playing behind star receivers moving into larger roles isn't very impressive, and while the Lions were able to get more out of Golden Tate after bringing him over from Seattle, Jones was really option 2B in Cincinnati's offense. He was thrown the ball on just 20.4 percent of the routes he ran last year, which was tied with Tyler Eifert for 80th in the league. (Tate was just ahead of him, at 20.6 percent. Megatron was at 22.8 percent.)
At the same time, there's not really much the Lions could have done. This is a distressingly thin market for wide receivers, and while they could have hoped for more development from Eric Ebron and drafted a wideout, the next veteran up on their roster at wide receiver was Corey Fuller. This probably isn't going to be a good deal, and the Lions really needed to use their cap space on improving their offensive and defensive lines, but they had to make some kind of move at receiver.
Mario Williams (Dolphins): C
It's hard to figure out the Dolphins, who seem to stick their finger into the socket, get shocked, and wonder how many of their other fingers can fit inside. Miami's top-heavy, stars-and-replacement talent roster philosophy hasn't worked for years, but instead of getting away from the tactic, the Dolphins are doubling down in 2016, swapping out stars for slightly younger stars. Brent Grimes is likely to leave once the Dolphins confirm their deal for Eagles cornerback Byron Maxwell, while the injured Cameron Wake (and/or the transition tagged-Olivier Vernon) might very well be dumped for Williams, who inked a two-year, $17-million deal to come to Miami.
The Dolphins didn't have many other options available, especially once Jason Pierre-Paul agreed to return to New York on a one-year deal, but Williams is 31 and was just run out of Buffalo amidst a cloud of anonymous sources saying derogatory things about Williams's effort level. Would they have been better off locking up Vernon, who is just 25 and had 36 quarterback knockdowns to Williams's 11 in 2015? Or using the money saved by cutting Wake to add much-needed depth around the roster? Do these sorts of questions ever even enter into Miami's thinking during the offseason? Williams should be better as a 4-3 defensive end than he was dropping off the line of scrimmage at times as a 3-4 outside linebacker for Rex Ryan last year, but this is another step in a tired, unsuccessful roster-building model for the Dolphins.
Coby Fleener (Saints): D+
Last year, the Saints knew that they had to rebuild their offensive line and defense, even if it meant sacrificing their pass-catching tight end, so they sent Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks and acquired Max Unger and draft picks. A year later, with their offensive line struggling and their defense still a mess, it seems as if they just gave up and went after a less impressive receiving tight end. Fleener isn't close to Graham's equal as a field-stretching receiver, and the Saints did just fine without that sort of weapon in their offense last year, turning Ben Watson into a viable tight end. After losing Watson to the Ravens, the Saints took what precious little cap space they had and decided to use it on Fleener's five-year, $36-million deal. It's reminiscent of their bizarre decision to invest heavily in running backs (of all things) last year, and speaks to just how flawed the organizational process has gotten in New Orleans.
Chris Ivory (Jaguars): D+
The decision to go after Ivory seems far less inspired. Despite the presence of 2015 second-rounder T.J. Yeldon on the roster -- whom Gus Bradley was talking up as an every-down back as recently as last month -- the Jags have reportedly agreed to give Ivory a three-year deal averaging in excess of $6 million per year. Dave Caldwell usually structures his deals for mid-tier players without much in the way of guaranteed money after the first year, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see this turn out to be a one- or two-year deal in reality.
Even so, it's hard to see this working out well for the Jaguars. Bruising, contact-seeking backs like Ivory rarely stay healthy or have long, sustained peaks. The most similar recent back to Ivory in terms of style and size is Marion Barber, who was very effective before signing a big contact extension with the Cowboys and almost immediately becoming a financial albatross. It's also bizarre to see the Jags throw a roadblock into Yeldon's path; the Alabama product didn't look like a star in his first year, but the list of second-round halfbacks who broke out in their second season is pretty long. The Jags were sure enough about Yeldon to take him with the 36th pick last year; are they already so sure that he isn't a franchise back that they're going to limit him to the smaller end of a timeshare? This isn't a financially prudent move, but the Jaguars have money to burn. What's more painful here is the opportunity cost of not finding a cheap veteran back or learning more about what Yeldon can and cannot do.
Doug Martin (Buccaneers): D+
One year ago, the Buccaneers were so disinterested in Doug Martin that they passed on giving him a fifth-year option which would have been worth $5.6 million. That option was only guaranteed for injury, meaning that the Buccaneers would only have been on the hook if Martin suffered a serious injury which impacted his ability to play. Now, a year later, the Bucs find the idea of keeping Martin around compelling enough to give him a five-year, $35.8 million deal with $15 million guaranteed, one of the bigger contracts in football for a running back.
Admittedly, Martin had an excellent 2015 season, and what the Bucs didn't do before the 2015 season shouldn't necessarily impact their decision-making afterward. The fact that their valuation changed so significantly, though, speaks to just how reactive the Buccaneers are organizationally and what little faith they have in their ability to evaluate their own roster. If the Bucs really believed Martin was this good, they would have picked up his option last year and used it as leverage to negotiate a long-term deal. They're paying for the player Martin was in 2015, and that's almost always a mistake when it comes to running backs.
Taken into context with the rest of his career, Martin just hasn't been a $7 million-per-year running back. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry during a resurgent 2015, but that was driven by a series of long runs. He had four runs of 45 yards or more last season (more than anybody beside Todd Gurley) after posting just five such runs over his first three seasons combined. Injuries also kept Martin alternately sidelined and ineffective for most of 2013 and 2014. If Martin stays healthy and continues to break long runs at a league-leading pace, he'll be worth the money. The chances of that happening just aren't very high.