We'll be grading the most notable NFL offseason moves -- signings and trades -- right here, so check this file for updates as the deals come in. Grades go all the way back to the Alex Smith deal before Super Bowl LII.
The most recent grades and write-ups are at the top.
Go to biggest deals: QB Cousins | QB Brees | QB Bradford | QB Keenum | QB Smith | WR Moncrief | WR Nelson | WR Robinson | WR Watkins | OT Solder | TE Graham | DT Suh | DT Richardson | CB Sherman | CB Johnson | CB Butler | CB Fuller
Tuesday, April 3
Trade: Patriots deal WR Brandin Cooks to Rams
When the Patriots traded for Brandin Cooks last offseason, the one confusing thing about the deal was how they would handle Cooks' impending free agency after the 2018 season. New England was getting the star receiver at the bargain price of about $9.2 million over two seasons, but it remained to be seen whether the same Patriots who didn't appear to have the cap room to re-sign Malcolm Butler or Jimmy Garoppolo were going to come up with the space to lock in Cooks to a multi-year contract.
As it turns out, they're not planning on doing so. After less than 13 months with the team, Cooks has been moved out West to the Rams, who sent the 23rd overall pick and one of their five sixth-round selections in exchange for the 24-year-old Cooks and a fourth-rounder. I don't think Bill Belichick necessarily acquired Cooks with the idea that he would trade the receiver a year later, but in a market where players like Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins are making $16 million per season, the Patriots might have blanched at the idea of paying Cooks an even larger annual salary.
It sure did turn out to be a nifty piece of business, though. If we assume that the sixth-rounder is L.A.'s initial pick (No. 198), the Patriots picked up what amounts to the 33rd pick of the draft according to the Chase Stuart chart as part of this deal. The trade they made with the Saints last year sent the equivalent of the 29th pick in draft capital to New Orleans for Cooks. The difference between those two picks is somewhere around the 199th selection, a fateful number for Patriots fans. Belichick basically rented Cooks for a year, paid him less than $1.6 million during a season when his top two wideouts -- Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan -- were healthy for a combined total of eight games, and spent a late sixth-round pick in the process. He's good at this.
For the Rams, Cooks is their Watkins replacement. Cooks won't be the same sort of red-zone threat the 6-foot-1 Watkins was in Los Angeles, but Cooks is a similarly imposing downfield threat and offers a far higher floor by virtue of his health. While the 24-year-old did leave the Super Bowl after suffering a concussion, Cooks hasn't missed a game since his rookie year. Watkins hasn't played a full 16-game slate since his own rookie season and has multiple foot surgeries in his past. Committing to Cooks on a long-term deal is far more comforting than locking Watkins down for multiple seasons.
The problem is that the Rams have now used their top two picks in this draft on wideouts, given that the first-rounder is going to New England and their second-round pick was shipped off to Buffalo in the Watkins deal. They've traded a first-round pick for one year of Cooks at $8.5 million and the right to franchise him in 2019 or pay him a market value deal. (Franchising him would also take the tag off the table for Aaron Donald, increasing Donald's leverage.) Nobody can question the star power the Rams currently possess, but this is a team with little depth at a number of key positions and major question marks at positions like tight end and edge rusher. Those draft picks could have helped.
For all the arguments about building a team around Jared Goff while their star quarterback is still cheap, the Rams are built around players who are about to get massive contracts instead of veterans on relatively reasonable deals, which is the case in Philadelphia. Cooks can realistically look for $17 million per year. Donald is about to own Arsenal. Todd Gurley and Marcus Peters are next. Teams who operate this way, even with a potentially dominant core, seem to come up short more often than not. The Tony Romo-era Cowboys are an example of how difficult it is to get a team built around seven to eight superstars and have them be healthy and productive at the same time.
While Cooks was productive with the Patriots and was the primary wideout for a quarterback who won league MVP, he wasn't necessarily the best fit during his season in New England. The Patriots threw the ball downfield more frequently in 2017, seemingly owing to the presence of Cooks; 21.9 percent of Tom Brady's passes traveled 15 yards or more in the air last year, which was the highest rate of his career and the ninth-highest rate in football. Brady posted a league-best passer rating of 103.4 on throws within 14 yards of the line of scrimmage, but on those passes traveling 15 or more yards in the air, his 96.8 rating was only good for 11th. Cooks might have helped open up some of those underneath routes, but the Patriots probably don't want to throw the ball downfield as much as they did in 2017.
What's fascinating now, of course, is what the Patriots are suddenly positioned to do. New England now has two first-rounders (Nos. 23 and 31) and two second-rounders (Nos. 43 and 63) to play with in this year's draft, which is an awful lot of draft capital for Belichick to work with. Belichick has made a career out of trading down and taking advantage of other GM's overconfidence on draft day, but I think it's unlikely that the Pats are going to turn these four picks into seven or eight selections.
The Patriots have occasionally traded up on draft day, with Rob Gronkowski serving as an example of one such player. If Belichick sees a quarterback he thinks could serve as the long-term replacement for Tom Brady, would he package some or all of those picks to move up and grab somebody? The Patriots couldn't afford to hold onto Garoppolo given that the now-49ers starter was going to be a free agent after the 2017 season, but whichever quarterback they draft would be making what amounts to a backup passer's salary and have plenty of time to develop behind Brady.
By the traditional Jimmy Johnson chart, picks 23, 31 and 43 would be enough to push the Pats past the Broncos and into the fourth overall pick. It would be strange to see the Pats trade up for what would possibly be the fourth quarterback of this year's draft, but they also don't appear to have the resources to move up to the second overall pick unless they deal away their 2019 first-rounder or another player off of their roster. Could Trey Flowers, himself a free agent after this season, be enough to convince the Giants to move down from the second pick for that package?
The other tantalizing possibility involves a player on the Giants' roster. General manager Dave Gettleman has reportedly been looking for two first-round picks from teams looking to acquire star wideout Odell Beckham Jr., and the Patriots suddenly have two first-round picks in this year's draft to work with. Beckham is under contract for one more year at $8.5 million, and while Cooks wasn't necessarily a great fit for the Patriots offense, Beckham's ability to accelerate after the catch and turn routine slants and crossing routes into touchdowns would make him a terrifying matchup with Brady in the fold.
Would the Pats pay a wide receiver as much as Beckham is likely to want from a team in free agency? Probably not. New England's mostly shopped in the bargain bin with wide receivers and gotten excellent production from players like Edelman and Wes Welker for a fraction of their actual value. (Welker did get one franchise tag after his initial five-year deal expired.) From outside the organization, they've targeted restricted free agents like Welker, Hogan and Emmanuel Sanders, and made modest short-term commitments to Brandon LaFell and Brandon Lloyd. They've let players like Deion Branch, David Givens and now Cooks leave in lieu of paying them market-value deals, picking up first-rounders for Branch and Cooks in the process.
The one notable exception, of course, is Randy Moss. The Patriots traded for Moss on the cheap, sending a fourth-rounder to the Raiders while convincing Moss to sign a one-year, $2.5 million deal to play with Brady. Moss promptly delivered one of the best seasons by a wide receiver in league history.
After the year, the Pats signed Moss to a three-year, $27 million deal with $15 million in guarantees. That was in a league where the salary cap was at $116 million -- under the current cap, that deal would look more like a three-year, $41 million pact. Moss unquestionably took less money than he could have found on the free market to stay with the Patriots, and Beckham would surely be looking to top the $17 million per year Antonio Brown got on his most recent extension, but it's not impossible to imagine a world in which Belichick pays a premium for a truly transcendent wide receiver.
More than anything, what this deal affords the Pats is flexibility to fill one or more holes on their roster. They have a major need at offensive tackle after losing Nate Solder, and could use pieces along the defensive line and at cornerback. Another wide receiver wouldn't hurt, either. Belichick has the assets to move up, down and around the board to target the guys he wants, and he has a track record of winning those trades more often than not. Belichick's trade history isn't enough alone to call this one a win for the Patriots, but given that he managed to rent a star wide receiver for a year at the cost of a sixth-round pick when other teams are paying premiums to bring in backups, it's pretty clear that the greatest coach in league history is on another level altogether.
Monday, March 26
DT Ndamukong Suh, Rams
In the end, the market really wasn't there for Suh to come away with the sort of massive, multiyear offer he would have likely received had the Dolphins cut him at the start of free agency. Suh reportedly turned down larger offers elsewhere, and Josh Norman stands as an example of a player who became available late in the process and was still able to pick up a market-resetting contract at his position, but there wasn't really a great fit out there for the 31-year-old Nebraska product.
Instead, Suh will just go to Los Angeles to form what surely must be the most terrifying pair of interior disruptors on one defensive line in recent memory. There were concerns about L.A.'s pass rush after the Rams traded away Robert Quinn, but Suh and Aaron Donald should be downright unblockable against the weak underbelly of NFL pass-protectors, the league's interior linemen. They've already sacked Russell Wilson four times and the season hasn't even started yet.
Are there reasons to think that the pairing might not play out as well as the name value sounds? Three, I think. One is that Suh is genuinely coming off of his worst season since 2011, when he was suspended for two games -- the only two he has missed in his professional career. Suh has been able to stay remarkably healthy for an interior lineman, but he also has played a ton of snaps by the age of 30. Since entering the league in 2010, he has played 6,773 defensive snaps, more than any other defensive lineman in football. Just three linemen -- Suh, Calais Campbell and Cameron Jordan -- have topped 6,000 snaps over that span.
As a result, it has to at least be a little worrisome that Suh's pass-rushing numbers dropped during each of his seasons in Miami:
The other issue is that teams haven't really been able to turn two dominant interior defenders into productive pass-rushers at the same time. According to Pro Football Reference, no team has had two defensive tackles top 10 or more sacks in a season over the past 25 years. If we lower the cutoff to eight sacks, nobody has pulled off that trick since 1999. The Rams have the unquestioned top trio of defensive tackles in the game with Donald, Suh and Michael Brockers, but they're simultaneously about as thin on the edge as anyone in football. The guys on the inside should guarantee Matt Longacre & Co. one-on-one matchups against tackles on virtually every snap, but the Rams would be better off if Suh were a similarly productive 265-pound edge rusher given the current construction of their roster.
The third concern is the least meaningful of the bunch to me, but also the most difficult to forecast. The Rams are taking risks this offseason in adding clearly talented players who other teams were willing to cast off at distressed prices, including Suh, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. The argument, naturally, is that the Rams have a far more settled locker room and coaching situation with Sean McVay and Wade Phillips in charge.
Does that make sense? Sure, but things don't always play out that way. This time last year, many folks were raving about the work Jack Del Rio had done in rebuilding the Raiders. The hottest young coach in football was Adam Gase, who had pushed the Dolphins into the playoffs in his first season in charge. One year later, Del Rio is out of a job and Gase has had to dump key contributors and rebuild his coaching staff in an attempt to fix his team's culture.
The Rams are making wholesale changes to their defense and their locker room, and while Phillips is likely the best defensive coordinator in football, we'll only know how that goes once those guys actually get onto the field and play alongside one another. I can't fault the Rams for being aggressive, but aggression inherently involves risk. Maybe the Rams don't get enough pressure off the edge to keep quarterbacks from getting outside the pocket. Perhaps Suh is toast. It's difficult to imagine L.A. getting as much from guys like Donald and Todd Gurley as they did in 2017, if only because they were about as productive as an interior lineman and a running back can be in any given season in the modern NFL.
With that being said, though, Suh is a risk worth taking. The Rams still need to sign Donald to the stratospheric extension the reigning Defensive Player of the Year deserves, but bringing in Suh on a one-year, $14 million deal shouldn't preclude Los Angeles from making that move. As former Giants general manager George Young put it with his Planet Theory, there are only so many big men with the athleticism to make a difference up front in the NFL on Earth, and when you get the chance to add one, you take it. While there are meaningful concerns about Suh, this is an opportunity the Rams could not -- and should not -- have passed up.
Friday, March 23
Trade: Cardinals deal tackle Jared Veldheer to Broncos
Once seen as an upper-echelon left tackle, Veldheer has fallen down the offensive line spectrum. He wasn't even a passable right tackle in 2017 before going down with a serious ankle injury. It would be a bit of a surprise if Veldheer was totally toast, given that he will be only 31 in June, but he has been in dramatic decline for three consecutive seasons. It's no surprise that the Cardinals wanted to move him, in lieu of paying him nearly $7 million this upcoming season, although it would have been far more helpful if Arizona had been able to move his salary before free agency.
At the same time, the Cardinals were able to pick up a sixth-round pick for a player they likely had little intention of keeping on their roster.
Veldheer is a curious fit for the Broncos, who already invested a first-round pick on left tackle Garett Bolles and gave Menelik Watson a three-year, $18.4 million deal before last season. Watson wasn't very good, but given that he hadn't been impressive with the Raiders, that shouldn't have been an enormous surprise.
Watson remains a major injury risk -- he has played just 34 games in five pro seasons, and he went down after seven games with a foot injury -- but Veldheer is years removed from his peak as a useful tackle. The Broncos could cut Watson or renegotiate Veldheer's deal, but committing to either right tackle seems like a bad idea. You might imagine a world where these two provide injury insurance for one another, but this is more plausibly a situation in which the Broncos are paying two subpar right tackles significant money.
Thursday, March 22
Trade: Giants deal DE Jason Pierre-Paul to Buccaneers
When I was skeptical of Pierre-Paul's long-term extension this time last year, I was concerned that the Giants were paying for a player they were never going to see again. Pierre-Paul had improved as a run defender, but his pass-rushing production had been down since the combination of back surgery and the fireworks accident that severely injured his hand. Giving a player like that a four-year, $62 million deal is essentially assuming he'll play at a Pro Bowl level on an annual basis, which simply hadn't been true of JPP.
The 2017 version of Pierre-Paul was a reasonable player, but he was a passenger on a sinking ship. He led the team with eight sacks, but at least three of those takedowns were coverage sacks. JPP finished with just 13 knockdowns, a far cry from the player who topped 20 twice earlier in his career. The 29-year-old did play 91.5 percent of New York's defensive snaps and played in all 16 games for just the second time in the past five years, which is a positive sign, but the same concerns about his long-term viability that were there a year ago still exist.
With three years and $39.5 million remaining on his deal, it didn't seem likely that the Giants were looking for a trade partner for their longtime edge rusher, let alone that they would find one. Enter the Buccaneers, who have a long-standing need for pass-rushing help. Tampa's six defensive ends combined for 8.5 sacks last season, which makes modest production from Pierre-Paul suddenly look appetizing. Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht also loves contracts that don't have long-term complications, and the JPP deal has nothing guaranteed after this season.
The Bucs are paying Pierre-Paul just over $13 million per season, which is probably more than he would get on the free-agent market, but might well be worth it on what amounts to a year-to-year deal. They didn't give up a ton, as the Giants sent their fourth-round pick (No. 102) along with the USF product for the Bucs' third-round (No. 69) and fourth-round (No. 108) selections. By the Chase Stuart draft chart, all that cancels out to value JPP as the 73rd pick in a typical draft, roughly a mid-third round pick.
The Giants get out of the JPP contract after one year and $22.5 million, with $15 million in dead money hitting their cap in 2018. One of the arguments for the Giants making this move has been schematic. After firing everyone who had an office or a polo shirt in their facility this offseason, they revamped the coaching staff and brought in well-respected Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher, who plans to install a 3-4 front as the Giants' base defense. It fits the talents of star nose tackle Damon Harrison, but appears to have created concerns about the fit of Pierre-Paul.
I'm not sure I buy those concerns. For one, hiring a defensive coordinator to install a 3-4 when you have $30 million per year invested in defensive ends (Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon) seems almost profoundly stupid. If the Giants thought either of their ends couldn't play in a 3-4, they should have hired a different coordinator. Plenty of other 4-3 ends have made hay in a 3-4 too, including Chandler Jones after his move to Arizona.
Furthermore, the 3-4/4-3 divide means less than ever, given that teams spend the vast majority of their time in their nickel packages with five defensive backs and four down linemen. It's fair to note that Bettcher's Cardinals were in their base look 36.5 percent of the time over the past three years, which was more than anyone else in football, but even that's no longer a primary package. Wanting to move Pierre-Paul is one thing, but doing so to accommodate a scheme that didn't fit the personnel the Giants had on their roster seems too shortsighted to actually be true.
This all leads into the other question that seems to be in play here: Are the Giants freeing up a spot for the guy they plan to take with the second overall pick? There have been plenty of reports that the Giants are perfectly comfortable with the idea of running things back with a veteran team and Eli Manning in the hopes that they'll be able to compete immediately, and their moves this offseason seem more in line with retooling than rebuilding.
With that in mind, are the Giants considering passing on a quarterback with the second overall pick to take NC State defensive end Bradley Chubb? They have a track record of valuing edge rushers as premium players going back to the Bill Parcells days, a stretch that included general manager Dave Gettleman's first run within the organization from 1999-2011, albeit as pro personnel director. Chubb would be a curious fit for a 3-4 after playing as a 4-3 down lineman in school, but as was the case with JPP, the scheme fit matters less than ever before and shouldn't preclude you from keeping around a superstar edge rusher if the talent and availability are there.
There's obviously still a chance that the Giants take a quarterback and that the JPP move is unrelated, although that would be strange given how they're trying to win now. If they don't want a quarterback though, they're suddenly open for business in a very big way with the second overall pick. They can get Chubb without running any risk by toying with the Jets, who have to now be terrified that somebody will leap ahead of them and trade into the second overall spot. If they can extract another high pick from the Jets to move up from third to second overall, the Giants can still take Chubb at No. 3, get him on a cheaper contract and pick up another selection as part of a deal.
Alternatively, if the Giants are just in the market to add talented players and aren't attached to Chubb, they are well-positioned for a much bigger haul. We know the Jets are taking a quarterback at No. 3, but any team who thinks there are two franchise passers in this year's class (or feels confident that the Browns are taking Sam Darnold) can move ahead of Gang Green by trading with the Giants.
The Bills, for example, could send their two first-rounders (Nos. 12 and 22), their second-round pick (53) and the third-round pick they acquired from the Browns (65) and make what amounts to a fair swap on the Jimmy Johnson chart by giving up 2,635 points of draft capital for the second overall pick, which is worth 2,600 points. By the Stuart chart, the Bills would be paying $1.70 on the dollar, which is less than the Jets paid to move up, but more in line with recent trade-ups for quarterbacks.
What might make more sense, though, would be to work a deal with the Broncos, who would presumably still be in the quarterback market even after signing Case Keenum. If Denver sent the fifth overall pick and a 2019 first-rounder and we valued that pick as the 16th selection, the Broncos would be sending 2,700 points of value on the Johnson chart for the second pick, again worth 2,600 points.
That would be worth only $1.17 on the dollar by Stuart's chart, but the Giants could move down and would still be in great shape. With the first three teams taking quarterbacks, the Browns would have their pick of Chubb, star halfback Saquon Barkley and mauling guard Quenton Nelson with the fourth pick. They almost certainly wouldn't take Nelson, who might be the "hog molly" Gettleman wants more than anyone in this draft. As much as this deal is about Pierre-Paul, it's about what happens next for the Giants.
Sunday, March 18
Trade: Raiders deal WR Cordarrelle Patterson to Patriots
Patterson strangely comes home again as part of this deal, given that the Vikings drafted him with a pick they acquired from the Patriots in a famously one-sided deal. The picks Minnesota sent to New England turned into Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan, Josh Boyce, and a selection the Pats used to trade for LeGarrette Blount. The Patriots then used Collins to trade for a draft pick from the Browns, which they used as part of the package to grab Brandin Cooks.
Despite a promising end to his rookie season, Patterson never emerged as much more than a return man and occasional target on screens for the Vikings. He moved to the Raiders in 2017 and lasted one year before this deal. Patterson certainly has the speed to serve as a downfield weapon, but the Tennessee product has averaged a mere 10 yards per reception as a pro, ranking 106th among the 109 wideouts with 100 catches or more over that time frame. He also has six touchdowns as a runner and is a useful threat on the jet sweep.
Patterson's role has instead been as a kick returner, where he has been very effective over his career. Patterson has five kick return touchdowns over his career, all of which came in Minnesota. He'll take over as the primary kick return man for the Patriots given that Dion Lewis left for the Titans in free agency.
The problem with this move is that there just aren't many opportunities for kick returners to make their mark under the modern league rules, especially on a team that produces as many long offensive drives as New England. The Pats have returned only 57 kickoffs over the past two years, less than two per contest. Patterson is one of the league's best kick returners, but at a salary of $3 million, will he really have enough opportunities as a return man to justify his salary?
That $3 million salary isn't guaranteed, so it's entirely possible that the Pats bring Patterson to camp and decide he's not worth the investment. They didn't give up very much, reportedly swapping the fifth-round pick they acquired from the Browns (through the Chiefs) for one of Oakland's five sixth-round selections, which will at least give the Oakland staff a reasonable shot at a bathroom break during the sixth round. Oakland probably was thinking about cutting Patterson, so while it spent $5.6 million on the 27-year-old in 2017 and didn't get much, this was better than nothing.
DE Vinny Curry, Buccaneers
Stigmatized as the one defensive lineman in football the Eagles don't want to keep on their roster, the productive Curry was underrated by traditional metrics last season. He had only three sacks, but he tied Chris Long for the team lead with 18 quarterback knockdowns, which are usually a better predictor of future sacks than sacks themselves. (A pass-rusher with 18 knockdowns will usually generate about eight sacks.) The concerning thing, perhaps, is that Curry has a track record of underperforming those totals; while he racked up nine sacks on 11 knockdowns in 2014, the Marshall product has turned 45 knockdowns into only nine sacks over the three ensuing seasons.
Bucs general manager Jason Licht has a long history of negotiating contracts that keep his team's cap clean and not drafting edge rushers, so Curry should be no exception to those rules. The three-year, $27 million deal Curry signed has $11.5 million guaranteed, and it wouldn't be shocking if all of that came due in Year 1 of the deal. Tampa desperately needed edge rushing help, so even if Curry produces a season like the one we saw last season, he would represent a much-needed piece of the puzzle for Tampa.
Saturday, March 17
Trade: Jets trade up with Colts for No. 3 overall pick
The Colts were always going to be likely to trade out of the third spot, given the presence of Andrew Luck and the likelihood that another team would want to move up for one of the quarterback prospects in this year's draft. The dream would have been a haul with multiple first-round picks, but unless the Colts were willing to wait until the draft and run the risk of not getting an offer at all, this was the next-best thing.
Indy moves down three spots in the first round, which isn't much given that it should be in the market for a player like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, who could still be there at No. 6. In return, the Colts get three second-round picks, two this year and one in 2019. Each should fall in the top half of the draft. By the Chase Stuart chart, the Colts got nearly two dollars to one on their money.
It's an aggressive trade from the Jets, but it might not be aggressive enough. Moving up to No. 3 puts them ahead of the game, given that there were likely a handful of teams who would have been in the running to move ahead of them and draft a quarterback with the Colts' pick.
With one of the thinnest rosters in the league, it has to hurt to trade away four high-draft picks as part of this deal. It will be disastrous if the Jets make this deal and don't come away with a franchise-altering player.
The problem is that the Jets are presumably trading up to grab a specific quarterback and can't do that at three. There's certainly a chance that the Jets end up with their pick of the passers if Nelson, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley and NC State pass-rusher Bradley Chubb come off the board with the top two picks, but free agency suggests that the Browns are going to take a quarterback first. There's certainly a chance the Giants take a passer with the second overall pick, too.
Maybe the Jets love two quarterbacks and think the Giants will draft Nelson. If so, they'll be OK. I don't recall a team ever saying privately or publicly that it loved three or more franchise quarterbacks in a given draft, and if the Jets loved three different passers, there's a decent chance one of them would have fallen to No. 6. You can certainly understand this Jets move, but it might not be enough of a measure for the Jets to get the guy they want.
Friday, March 16
DB Tyrann Mathieu, Texans
The Texans needed to upgrade their secondary this offseason. Problem solved. After re-signing Johnathan Joseph and adding Aaron Colvin from Jacksonville, the Texans finished out their spending spree by adding Mathieu after he became a salary-cap casualty in Arizona. Mathieu's one-year deal comes in at $7 million, which is down toward the bottom of the top 10 on a one-year salary for free safeties.
At his peak in 2015, Mathieu was a ball-hawking force of nature, capable of shifting between free safety and serving as a slot cornerback from snap to snap. The former LSU star picked off five passes, made 11 tackles for loss and knocked away 17 passes in 14 games before suffering his second torn ACL in three years. Since then, Mathieu has suited up far more frequently like a pure free safety, and the production hasn't been there. Over 26 games during 2016-17, the Honey Badger recorded just two interceptions, nine tackles for loss and eight pass breakups.
Interceptions can be totally random from year to year, and I think there's plenty of upside in targeting a guy with Mathieu's football instincts, especially given that he's still just 25 years old. The Texans are already deep at corner with Colvin, Joseph, Kareem Jackson and Kevin Johnson, so Houston might very well just stick with Mathieu as a full-time safety and use him and Andre Hal as interchangeable players inside and outside the box.
The downside here for the Texans is that they didn't get any additional years on the end of the contract. If Mathieu recovers his form, the Texans will happily take his return to form, but Mathieu will be in line to pick up a big free-agent deal after the season. Houston might not have had the opportunity in negotiations, but this would be a better contract for the Texans if they had the option of keeping Mathieu around through 2019.
RB LeGarrette Blount, Lions
Blount proved that he could play for someone besides Bill Belichick last season, serving as part of an effective running back rotation for the Eagles en route to their Super Bowl win. The group as a whole moved the football well, but in comparing Blount to his backfield mates, he wasn't all that effective:
ESPN's win expectancy and expected point metrics basically say Blount was an anonymous back in 2017. You figure Blount was supposed to serve as a hammer near the goal line, a logical role given that he scored 18 touchdowns for the Patriots in 2016, but he was among the worst goal-line backs in football last season. Blount carried the ball 12 times inside the 5-yard line and scored just once, the worst ratio in the league for any back with five tries or more. The other Philly running backs scored on four of their seven attempts.
Twelve carries isn't enough to base a meaningful sample on, so I'm not suggesting that Blount is a terrible goal-line back, but just that he had an ugly season as the hammer in 2017. Before 2017, Blount had converted 42.4 percent of his 66 goal-line carries into scores, which was narrowly above the league average of 38.4 percent. Blount also offers virtually nothing as a receiver and was on the field for just 15 third-down snaps as a pass protector, so all of his value is tied up in what he does with the ball in his hands as a runner.
Given that Blount had to wait until May to sign a one-year, $1.2 million deal with the Eagles last year, it's a bit of a surprise that the 31-year-old got a raise to a sign a one-year, $2 million deal with the Lions that could rise to $4.5 million with incentives. Blount should be an upgrade on Ameer Abdullah in short-yardage situations, but his role on a team that loves to throw the ball and create mismatches with its backs in the passing game is murky beyond that.
C John Sullivan, Rams
Once one of the best centers in football, Sullivan saw his value sapped by injuries by the end of his time in Minnesota. The Notre Dame product missed all of 2015 while undergoing a pair of back surgeries and then failed to make a dreadful Vikings offensive line in 2016, leading to his release after no team wanted to trade for his contract. Sullivan then spent the year as a backup in Washington before following Sean McVay to the Los Angeles Rams, where he played well and stayed healthy on a one-year, $999,999 deal.
In response to Sullivan's first healthy season as a starter since 2014, the Rams had to go all the way up to $7.5 million per year to keep Sullivan on a two-year, $15 million pact. Their logic, understandably, is that Sullivan helps set the protections for Jared Goff and is familiar with McVay's scheme. At the same time, though, didn't we just spend all of last season hailing McVay as an offensive wunderkind? Can't he teach another center the scheme? Even if it's effectively a one-year deal, isn't that several million dollars the Rams could apply elsewhere on the roster given the 32-year-old's health history? And if that's what other teams around the league were offering, why didn't those teams think he was worth much more than the minimum in 2016 or 2017? The Rams didn't have to make a long-term commitment on this deal, but it's still an extremely aggressive bet on a player nobody was betting on over the past few seasons.
CB Kyle Fuller, Bears
The Bears ended up costing themselves millions of dollars and made a commitment they might regret by virtue of making a decision that ended up going strangely wrong in a good way last year and a second decision that was highly questionable this offseason. In the end, they're making a commitment to a player who the organization thought was closer to being released than playing a starring role this past season.
General manager Ryan Pace & Co. declined Fuller's fifth-year option before last season, which was defensible given his status at the time. Fuller had been ineffective for the vast majority of his brief career, and he had missed the entirety of the previous season because of a knee injury that had defensive coordinator Vic Fangio questioning Fuller's desire to play. Given that any complications with the knee injury might have caused Fuller's fifth-year option for 2018 to guarantee if he couldn't pass a physical, you can understand why the Bears declined the option.
The strangest thing subsequently happened: Fuller suddenly got both healthy and good. The former 2014 first-round pick played all 16 games and had his best season as a pro, knocking away 22 passes, second in the league behind Darius Slay. A guy who looked as if he were on his way out of Chicago suddenly looked like a building block for a burgeoning defense, but it's way too early to say that Fuller is a sure thing. One year of valuable play is incredibly helpful, but given how little the Bears thought about Fuller before the season, it would be foolish to drastically do a 180 and treat him like a No. 1 cornerback.
The best thing to do would have been to franchise him, which would have guaranteed the Bears another year and allowed them to retain the leverage in negotiating a long-term deal. That would have cost $15 million. Instead, the Bears chose to hit Fuller with the transition tag, saving $2 million but allowing Fuller to negotiate with other teams and come up with a long-term offer that's designed to prevent the Bears from matching.
Instead, Fuller went out and found a four-year, $56 million deal with the Packers that contains $18 million guaranteed. For one, the Bears immediately matched the deal, which is bizarre; they could have waited the full five days and tied up the Packers before accepting the offer. (If the argument is that they didn't want Fuller to twist in the wind, that's also silly since you can privately tell a player you're privately going to match and want to stick it to your division rival.)
The $18 million guarantee sounds like a modest increase on the $13 million transition tag or the $15 million franchise tag and a great deal for the Bears; swapping $5 million in guarantees for the right to lock down Fuller for the next three seasons sounds like a great move.
Unfortunately, the Packers didn't make it that simple. Reports suggest that Fuller will make $20 million in Year 1 of this deal and $29 million in Year 2, which is an enormous increase from the $10 million per year the Bears had previously been offering. The $18 million guaranteed number doesn't mean anything given the structure of the deal; the Bears might not have guaranteed that $9 million, but if it will cost them more money to cut Fuller in Year 2 than it would to keep him on the roster, he's not going anywhere.
The cash flow of the deal suggests that's exactly the case, which amounts to something closer to a transition tag in 2018 and a guaranteed franchise tag in 2019 in lieu of a guaranteed franchise tag in 2018 and flexibility thereafter. Fuller's due $42 million over the first three years of this new contract, which is more than Casey Hayward got on his extension. It would be the third-largest three-year value for a cornerback in football after Josh Norman and Trumaine Johnson. Both of those players each had a lower percentage of their contracts guaranteed than Fuller.
The Bears backed themselves into a corner and handed out a deal that represents the best-case development curve for Fuller to try to save $2 million up front. In the end, they're committed to paying Fuller like he's a Pro Bowl cornerback for two years just a year after thinking he was roster fodder.
C Ryan Jensen, Buccaneers
The top center left on the market, Jensen had been a college tackle and reserve guard for the Ravens before beating out Tony Bergstrom for the pivot after Jeremy Zuttah was traded, re-acquired, and released last season. His job got tougher when the Ravens lost both of their likely starting guards, including star Marshal Yanda, by the end of Week 2.
Instead, Jensen put together an impressive season and ended up playing like one of the best centers in the league. The Bucs responded by giving Jensen a four-year, $42 million deal with $22 million guaranteed, the latter of which would be a record for a center if it's fully guaranteed at signing.
As always, the issue is gauging one year of success versus a player's career. Jensen was a relatively anonymous guard. After one year of good football, the Buccaneers are making a bet that he'll continue to be one of the best centers in football. Sometimes, that works out, but the chances are always going to be greater that a player performing at a high level for a brief period of time takes a step backward (out of injury attrition or sheer regression to the mean) than a step forward.
It's also a curious fit given that the Buccaneers had previously decided to move breakout guard Ali Marpet to center to try to get their best five linemen on the field. Now, they're presumably going to move Marpet back to guard, where he lost a year of development time, in advance of the final year of the his deal. Tampa needed offensive line help, but this is an extremely aggressive maneuver from a team that has made a habit out of signing quality free agents and getting less out of them than we would have expected.
WR Michael Crabtree, Ravens
Good thing Ryan Grant suddenly developed a physical-failing ankle injury! Independent of whatever happened with Grant and the Ravens, let's evaluate the three-year, $21 million deal Baltimore subsequently handed to Crabtree after the 30-year-old was released by the Raiders earlier this week. The deal reportedly guarantees Crabtree $11 million with $15 million coming over the first two seasons. It's slightly more than what the Rams gave Robert Woods over the first three years of his five-year deal last offseason ($20 million), a move that ended up working out better than I (and perhaps the Rams) could have imagined at the time.
Crabtree was a possession receiver and a red zone threat during his time in Oakland. The former 49ers star averaged between 10.7 and 11.3 yards per catch during each of his three seasons with quarterback Derek Carr, scoring between eight and nine touchdowns each time out. Perhaps more crucially, Crabtree stayed relatively healthy after suffering a torn Achilles in 2013, missing just one game due to injury over three seasons.
The Texas Tech product should give the Ravens the possession receiver they've lacked since Steve Smith ruptured his Achilles in 2015. Over the previous year and a half after Smith joined the team, Joe Flacco had posted an 88.0 passer rating and a 63.2 Total QBR. After Smith went down, Flacco subsequently put up a 82.3 passer rating and a QBR of just 47.7. This is a archetype the Ravens haven't been able to fill with guys like Breshad Perriman and Mike Wallace.
Crabtree doesn't solve Baltimore's receiving problems single-handedly, and there are reasons to think he might disappoint. Players with his lack of pure speed don't have much margin for error; consider that Crabtree averaged 3.22 yards after the catch over his three seasons in Oakland, ranking 96th out of 103 wideouts. The narrow windows Carr needed to hit with Crabtree contributed to a 4.9 percent drop rate, which ranked 81st among those wideouts (although better than former teammates Amari Cooper and Seth Roberts). Crabtree has the Achilles injury and a history of foot fractures in his past. He's the sort of receiver the Ravens needed, but he's riskier than those consistent numbers from Oakland might suggest.
DT Sheldon Richardson, Vikings
On one hand, it's not a surprise that Richardson wasn't able to find a long-term, big-money deal on the market given that teams were hesitant to take him on for a draft pick at a salary of $8.1 million last offseason. He didn't contribute much as a pass-rusher in Seattle, and recent history suggested that teams weren't willing to pay many eight-figure salaries to guys who were strictly run defenders on the interior.
On the other hand, though, other interior linemen without pass-rushing credentials who were seemingly less appealing than Richardson got significant multiyear contracts. Star Lotulelei signed with the Bills for five years and $50 million. Dontari Poe picked up three years and $27 million from the Panthers to replace him. Richardson is a year younger than Lotulelei and doesn't have the back surgery in his past that seems to have sapped Poe's pass-rushing ability.
Instead, Richardson is going to join the budding defensive line arms race between the Eagles and Vikings. The former Jets standout leaves the Seahawks to join the Vikings on a one-year, $8 million deal that can hit $11 million with unspecified incentives. It's a great opportunity for Minnesota, which will slot Richardson into the starting lineup as a replacement for the presumably retired Sharrif Floyd and unrestricted free agent Tom Johnson. It will be a comfortable upgrade.
The Seahawks have to look back on their one-year dalliance with Richardson with disappointment, given that it cost them a second-round pick and they missed the postseason. Richardson might still net them a compensatory pick in 2020, but they'll need to sit out the remainder of free agency after signing Ed Dickson and Barkevious Mingo.
CB Rashaan Melvin, Raiders
Perhaps most notable for being thrust off the street and into the starting lineup for the Ravens after a series of injuries at cornerback before being lit aflame in the 2014 playoffs, Melvin had been bouncing around the league before finding his way to the Colts in 2016. The 28-year-old then surprisingly emerged as one of the best players on the roster in 2017, as he helped Indy rank 18th in DVOA against No. 1 wideouts despite the Colts ranking 27th against No. 2 wideouts and 30th against other wide receivers before going down with a hand injury in December.
Given the fact that Melvin had never played at that level before, the Colts were tentative in locking up the journeyman to a long-term deal. The market didn't find Melvin that sort of contract, but he did get an opportunity to play on a contender in signing a one-year, $6.5 million deal with Oakland, where he'll likely start across from 2017 first-round pick Gareon Conley in a new-look Raiders secondary. It's a relatively low-risk move for the Raiders, but given that Melvin will hit free agency after this season regardless, it's also a low-reward opportunity.
Thursday, March 15
DT Star Lotulelei, Bills
The Bills needed help on the defensive interior after trading Marcell Dareus, and while they were able to convince Kyle Williams to come back on a one-year deal, it seemed likely that Buffalo would go after another defensive tackle to play alongside the LSU product. It's no surprise, then, that coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane would look toward Carolina and go after Lotulelei after the Panthers let their former first-round pick hit free agency.
Carolina re-signed Kawann Short as opposed to Lotulelei because the former has been a dominant pass-rusher. That hasn't been the case with the Utah product, as Lotulelei has produced just 11.5 sacks over his five pro seasons. He's an able run defender and has stayed healthy for most of his pro career, but the Bills gave Lotulelei more than even Dontari Poe received from the Panthers. Lotulelei's five-year, $50 million deal netted him $16.5 million fully guaranteed at signing and $33 million over years one through three, which is right about what Brandon Williams got from the Ravens last year. That's the top of the market for run-stuffing defensive linemen who don't get after the quarterback.
WR Donte Moncrief, Jaguars
It's difficult to see the reasoning behind the one-year deal the Jags handed Moncrief, given that it will pay him a minimum of $7 million and hit up to $9.6 million with incentives. You might argue that Moncrief is still young, and indeed, he doesn't turn 25 until August. The wide receiver market has certainly been crazy, and if the Jaguars wanted to add another weapon for Blake Bortles, there weren't going to be many bargains out there.
Is there significant evidence Moncrief is actually good, though? The Ole Miss product hasn't even topped 750 yards in a professional season despite spending most of his pro career with Andrew Luck under center. He produced a seven-touchdown season on 30 catches in 2016, but that's totally out of line with the rest of his career, during which he has scored 11 times on 88 grabs.
Moncrief has missed 11 games over the past two seasons with injuries, so his best campaign was in 2015, when he made it all the way to 733 yards. His best four-game stretch during that run was when he racked up 275 yards and three touchdowns over the first quarter of the season. That's fine, but Moncrief's probably going to take playing time away from undrafted free agent Keelan Cole, who racked up 294 yards over a two-game stretch last season. (This assumes the Jaguars cut Allen Hurns, and this is an even weirder signing if they don't.)
Note: The news that Moncrief's contract is for a fully guaranteed $9.6 million, as opposed to initial reports suggesting it was a $7 million deal, has changed this grade.
Let's say that Moncrief plays well and gives the Jags a red zone threat for that $7 million. All he does is go back to free agency and get a larger deal. It's difficult to believe that the Jags could pay $7 million up front to a guy who really hasn't been productive and is coming off two injury-hit seasons without getting any team options tacked onto the end of the contract.
WR Jordy Nelson, Raiders
Even typing "Raiders" next to Jordy Nelson's name seems weird, but after the Packers cut their longtime wideout earlier this week, it seemed likely he would find interest elsewhere. Nelson is on board in Oakland as a replacement for the newly released Michael Crabtree, with Nelson agreeing to a two-year, $15 million deal guaranteeing $13 million. The Raiders theoretically could have traded a conditional pick to the Packers and inherited the final year of Nelson's contract at nearly $10 million, so by assuming an extra $3 million in risk, the Raiders are getting a cheaper 2018 salary and the possibility of an extra season in 2019.
Is Nelson an upgrade on Crabtree? It's hard to say. The story is that Nelson's production fell off once Aaron Rodgers was injured and replaced by Brett Hundley, which is accurate but also misses the fact that Nelson's production before Rodgers' injury wasn't great. Through his first five games last season, Nelson produced 19 catches for 210 yards and a whopping six touchdowns, which was an unsustainable ratio. Given that Nelson missed most of the Falcons game in Week 2, he was averaging 57.5 receiving yards per contest, down from 94.9 yards per game in 2014 and 78.6 yards per game in 2016 after coming back from his torn ACL.
After Rodgers' injury last season, Nelson racked up just 252 yards across 10 games, for just 25.2 yards per contest. The noticeable thing is that Nelson averaged just 7.1 yards per reception after the Rodgers injury, which is virtually impossible for a wide receiver. Over the full season, Nelson averaged 9.1 yards per catch and 2.5 yards after catch. Out of 74 qualifying wideouts, Nelson was 72nd in the former category and 71st in the latter.
Overall, Nelson's yards per catch fell by 3.9 yards, from 13.0 in 2016 to 9.1 last season. That's a worrisome fall. In looking at receivers in their 30s who caught 50 passes in consecutive seasons, Nelson had the fourth-largest drop-off in yards per catch of any wideout since 1970. Receivers with similar drop-offs of more than three yards per catch didn't recover very well. It was the final year for players such as Terry Glenn and Rod Smith. James Lofton struggled through one more year. Players such as Donald Driver and Roddy White lasted one more season at their new, inferior level of play before taking another step backward and retiring. Terence Mathis and John Stallworth hung on for two more years without making an impact.
The only players who were able to get back to their old level of play were Muhsin Muhammad and Jerry Rice, the latter of whom will be an exciting name to hear for Raiders fans. It'll be intriguing to see how Nelson responds to playing under coach Jon Gruden and with a more capable non-Rodgers quarterback. I don't think Nelson is cooked, but I would rather have taken him on his old contract than paid him the additional $3 million in free agency.
TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jaguars
Seferian-Jenkins rebuilt his career with the Jets last season, although the results weren't necessarily glamorous. The former Bucs draftee was essentially a catch-and-fall-down tight end, as he averaged just 7.1 yards per reception, the fewest among qualifying tight ends by more than a yard and a half. There have been 419 tight end seasons with 50 targets or more since 2001, and in terms of yards per catch, Seferian-Jenkins' campaign ranks ... 418th. Only Donald Lee's 2009 season is worse.
The Jags were in the market for a tight end to supplement (if not replace) longtime contributor Marcedes Lewis, and Seferian-Jenkins might have some untapped upside given that he's still just 25, but the two-year, $10 million price tag is a reasonably significant short-term outlay for a tight end who might not have been very good last year. It's not hard to imagine that the Jags could have picked up a similar player to Seferian-Jenkins for not much more than the league minimum.
Trade: Browns deal CB Jason McCourty to Patriots
By all accounts, McCourty had an unexpectedly impressive season at cornerback for the Browns last year after being released by Tennessee. The 30-year-old seemed like a logical candidate to stick in the starting lineup for Cleveland in 2018, but after signing TJ Carrie and Terrance Mitchell, general manager John Dorsey reportedly told McCourty that he wasn't guaranteed to make the 53-man roster in September and offered him a chance to leave.
It seemed bizarre that no team would be interested in trading for McCourty given that he's only in line to make $2.9 million this upcoming season, and indeed, the Browns quickly found a trade partner. McCourty will join his brother, Devin, for the first time in their NFL careers, in New England, as the Patriots sent a sixth-round pick to the Browns for McCourty and a seventh-round selection.
Even if McCourty ends up serving as an adequate fourth cornerback, it's a great move for a Patriots team that just lost Malcolm Butler and isn't exactly deep at the position. If McCourty doesn't make the roster, the Pats aren't out much. It's a very reasonable bet for the team. I'm not sure why McCourty is less likely to be an effective cornerback than Mitchell, who was benched repeatedly by the Chiefs last season. But the Browns will pay a premium for the privilege of finding out.
DL Dontari Poe, Panthers
Poe famously turned down a multiyear deal from the Chiefs and hit free agency last year, only to find a weak market for his services. Poe settled for a one-year deal with the Falcons in the hopes of rebuilding his value, and it worked. He was about the same as a pass-rusher, racking up 2.5 sacks to go with 10 knockdowns after generating 1.5 sacks and nine knockdowns during his final season in Kansas City.
The Falcons did improve from 28th to 20th in rush defense DVOA, which is where Poe was supposed to help. Raw numbers don't suggest much of a difference with Poe on or off the field, but expected points do look more favorable, though the numbers aren't significant. The Chiefs' defense was 9.6 points above average with Poe on the field for 320 snaps and minus-2.2 points below average with Poe off of it for the other 82 running plays.
Poe is essentially the same player he was a year ago, which is why it's a bit of a surprise that the Panthers felt the need to offer him a three-year, $27 million deal. Teams have to be at least a little concerned about Poe's back, given that he underwent surgery and was an every-down player early in his career in Kansas City. Poe played 74.6 percent of the snaps for Atlanta last year, which is a good sign, but this is more than similarly talented run defenders will get in free agency this year.
TE Tyler Eifert, Bengals
Are you willing to believe in 2015? The former Notre Dame star has been productive during exactly one NFL season, when he racked up 13 touchdowns in 13 games for the Bengals in 2015. Eifert missed more games (41) than he played (39) over five years with Cincinnati, with elbow, ankle and back injuries costing him most of three seasons.
Eifert says he's healthy after undergoing back surgery, but the reality is that it's tough to trust that he'll continue to stay healthy. The easy comparison is Rob Gronkowski, but Eifert is not the same blocker Gronk is (few tight ends are), and has had even more health woes than the Patriots star. Gronkowski signed an extension two years into his rookie deal to mitigate some of the risk with his back, even if it meant leaving money on the table. As a rookie under the most recent collective bargaining agreement, Eifert didn't have the option to sign after his breakout campaign.
As a result, Eifert hit the free-agent market this year and didn't find a long-term deal waiting. Given his options, it's no surprise Eifert decided to return to Cincinnati on a one-year deal that will reportedly be worth up to $8 million in incentives. Tyler Kroft was quietly effective as a red zone target in Eifert's absence, racking up seven touchdowns on 42 completions, all of which came in the red zone. (Four of them were from 1 yard out, which tied for the most 1-yard receiving touchdowns in NFL history.) As a result, Eifert might not have the clear path to red zone targets behind A.J. Green that he once did in Cincinnati.
Trade: 49ers deal C Daniel Kilgore to Dolphins
The three-year extension Kilgore signed in February seemed curious when the 49ers subsequently added center Weston Richburg in free agency. The 49ers reiterated how they were committing to the players in their building in announcing the extension, but they have changed their mind a month later. San Francisco is sending Kilgore to the Dolphins for a swap of seventh-round picks, seemingly to give the longtime 49ers lineman a shot to start at center for another team. Kilgore's deal had no signing bonus, so the Niners don't eat any dead money as part of the transaction.
The Dolphins will instead pay Kilgore a $2.3 million roster bonus Friday, a move that neither side was likely expecting earlier this week. Miami's spot at center opened up when the Dolphins released Mike Pouncey, which was instigated by Pouncey. An alternate argument would be that the Dolphins chose the salary of struggling right tackle Ja'Wuan James over that of Pouncey. Cutting Pouncey will free up $7 million in space for the cap-strapped Dolphins.
Regardless of why the decision was made, Pouncey was not his usual self after returning from hip surgery last season, committing a career-high eight penalties. He had five holding calls after racking up five over the previous five seasons combined. Kilgore was a marginal starting center in San Francisco, but given that the Dolphins came to this decision after most of this year's free agents were off the board, Kilgore was a reasonable landing spot.
G Josh Sitton, Dolphins
Miami had some of the worst guard play in football last season, and Sitton should be a huge upgrade on the likes of Jermon Bushrod and Anthony Steen. The former Packers guard might not quite have deserved his Pro Bowl nod with the Bears in 2016, but he's still an above-average interior lineman. Sitton will turn 32 in July, so the Dolphins might not be in business with him for the long haul, but his two-year, $15 million deal contains $8 million guaranteed, suggesting that the Dolphins should be able to get out of the deal after 2018 if he declines any further. That's a very reasonable move.
Wednesday, March 14
DE DaQuan Jones, Titans
It's a little shocking to see Tennessee hand out a contract to a player who has never been a member of the Patriots, but the Titans have made an exception for Jones, a homegrown product. The 2014 fourth-round pick has rounded into his role as a solid run-stuffing interior lineman for the Titans, who have been far worse against the run without Jones on the field. With Jones in the lineup, Tennessee has allowed 3.6 yards per carry and first downs on 19.6 percent of rush attempts. Without the Penn State product, the Titans have allowed 4.2 yards per carry and first downs 21.6 percent of the time.
Jones even threw in a little bit of pass-rushing production last season, racking up 3.5 sacks, although a closer look suggests two of them would probably qualify as coverage sacks. Defensive linemen who profile as run-only contributors don't make much hay in free agency -- Bennie Logan and Dontari Poe had to settle for one-year deals last year and are still in the market this offseason -- so it's a bit of a surprise that Tennessee had to go to three years and $21 million to bring back Jones.
K Chandler Catanzaro, Buccaneers
2014: The Buccaneers hire general manager Jason Licht. Anonymous rookie kicker Patrick Murray beats out Connor Barth for the starting job and has a competent season, hitting on 83.3 percent of his field goals. He's worth 1.7 points of field position by Football Outsiders' metrics.
2015: Tampa cuts Murray to promote rookie Kyle Brindza. Brindza starts the year 6-for-12 on field goals and misses two of his first eight extra points. Tampa goes back to Barth, who hits on 82.1 percent of his field goal tries.
2016: The Bucs draft Roberto Aguayo and let Barth leave in free agency. You know how that goes.
2017: Tampa gives Nick Folk a $750,000 guarantee to compete for the kicking job in camp and then hands him the spot, cutting Aguayo. Folk misses five field goals and two extra points, including three different tries in a five-point loss to the Patriots. He's cut and replaced by Murray, who hits 82.6 percent of his field goal tries and goes 21-for-22 on extra points.
At what point do we not trust the Buccaneers with any kicker besides Murray? Catanzaro was allowed to leave by the Cardinals after a dismal 2016 season and hit on 83.3 percent of his field goals last season. He was worth 2.8 points of field position for the Jets in 2017. Tampa has given him a three-year, $9.8 million deal with $3.8 million guaranteed. If this one fails, the Bucs might want to start picking random fans out of the crowd.
DE Trent Murphy, Bills
Murphy has had a strange career. As the full-time starter across from Ryan Kerrigan in 2015, Murphy was able to rack up only 3.5 sacks and 10 knockdowns. Washington then replaced him in the starting lineup with Preston Smith, but while Smith took a step backward, Murphy broke out as a backup with nine sacks and 24 knockdowns, the latter of which topped even Kerrigan's mark. Having impressed, Murphy picked up a four-game PED suspension and subsequently tore his ACL, costing the Stanford product the entire 2017 campaign.
The Bills gave Murphy a three-year, $21 million deal, which will be a bargain if Murphy plays like the guy who was a great pass-rusher over 675 snaps in 2016. The injury and the PED suspension obviously call his ability to repeat that into question, but he is worth a bet. As the Bills rebuild their defensive line, Murphy could be a long-term replacement for Jerry Hughes at defensive end, given that the 29-year-old has just 10 sacks and 22 knockdowns over the past two seasons combined.
CB Patrick Robinson, Saints
What's old is new again. Robinson was the guy the Saints chose with their first-round pick the year after they won the Super Bowl, when it was easy to envision him blossoming into a starter under the stewardship of Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter. Things didn't work out that way. Robinson was inconsistent at best and downright disastrous during stretches with the Saints, leading him to hit the bench on multiple occasions. After his rookie deal expired, Robinson moved on and produced a competent campaign with the Chargers, but a three-year deal with the Colts ended poorly and led him back to free agency after one season.
It seemed like Robinson was closer to being out of football than he was to a meaningful role on a playoff team, but the Eagles signed him for one year and $775,000, stuck him in the slot, and got the best season of his life. The Florida State product picked off four passes and knocked away 18 throws, which was tied for sixth in the NFL. He added a crucial pick-six against Case Keenum in the NFC Championship Game after a hit by Chris Long.
Robinson's new deal with the Saints is for four years and $20 million. On one hand, nobody thought Robinson was even worth $1 million last year, and the majority of his career suggests that he hasn't been good enough to justify a long-term deal. On the other, this isn't a huge deal for a slot cornerback, and with Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley on the outside, the Saints should have the ability to keep Robinson in the slot. This is a risky move for New Orleans, but it's also defensible given how well Robinson played in 2017.
LB Demario Davis, Saints
The Saints also bought on a career year from another player who had a breakout 2017 season. Davis had bounced from the Jets to the Browns and back, and while it seemed like the 29-year-old had basically established himself as a relatively anonymous inside linebacker, Davis turned around his diet and preparation habits and had a career season with Gang Green. He stuffed the stat sheet, finishing with 135 tackles, five sacks, 13 tackles for loss, 15 quarterback knockdowns, and three pass deflections. It wasn't quite a Pro Bowl-caliber season, but Davis played himself back onto the radar in 2017.
It's interesting that the Jets, who have oodles of cap space, saw Davis turn his career around and didn't want to invest in him with a long-term deal. The Saints had no such qualms, signing Davis to presumably play middle linebacker. His three-year, $24 million deal reportedly contains $18 million in guarantees, which is an extraordinarily high percentage for a player on a veteran deal. The final contract language could be very telling and shift this grade further.
He'll likely take snaps from Manti Te'o and should line up next to A.J. Klein, who will be entering the second year of his own four-year, $24 million deal. It's also ponderous that the Saints came out of last season with the best draft class in recent memory and have responded by loading up on veterans at positions in which they should presumably be able to find talent in the draft. New Orleans is down a second-rounder from the Alvin Kamara trade, but the track record for teams that pay out on multi-year deals for guys who were available for next-to-nothing one year earlier is far closer to the old Saints than the ones who aced the offseason in 2017.
RB Isaiah Crowell, Jets
In a league in which the Patriots and Eagles rode a flotilla of low-cost running backs to the Super Bowl, the Jets appear insistent upon having two veteran backs making meaningful money at all times. With Matt Forte retiring, the Jets responded to their perceived need at halfback alongside Bilal Powell by giving Crowell a three-year, $12 million deal with $5 million in guarantees.
It's not a huge outlay, and the Jets could very easily be out of this deal by 2019, but there's not much evidence Crowell is any better than the scads of running backs who are available in this market. Behind one of the league's most expensively assembled offensive lines, Crowell ranked 38th out of 47 backs in success rate last season. Crowell ranked 40th in the same category the previous season. He has also been one of the league's worst goal-line backs over the past two seasons.
There's always a non-zero chance that a player like this takes a sudden leap forward in a new situation -- Marshawn Lynch in Seattle is the famous example -- but far more frequently, teams stifle their chances at finding a guy who will actually make a difference for them at running back at a fraction of the cost. Crowell is more likely to block a useful Jets halfback than be one.
CB TJ Carrie, Browns
In a move which makes the Terrance Mitchell deal even more curious, GM John Dorsey made another move at cornerback by signing away Carrie from Oakland. The 27-year-old gets four years and $31 million with $10 million in guarantees, suggesting he'll challenge Jamar Taylor for a starting role across from Jason McCourty.
Carrie is a Bay Area native who suggested he didn't want to leave Oakland, so it's perhaps telling that the Raiders released both of their starting cornerbacks from last season and didn't think it was worth matching this offer for a guy who was their best corner last season. The Raiders repeatedly turned to Carrie after David Amerson and Sean Smith struggled, and while their pass defense was still a brutal 30th in DVOA, Carrie arguably kept it from being worse. Cleveland has committed about $20 million or so to cornerbacks today, but it's unclear whether the Browns have found an upgrade on Taylor.
QB AJ McCarron, Bills
After the much expected dalliance between McCarron and Hue Jackson never came to fruition in Cleveland, the former Alabama star was left frantically searching for a seat in the NFL's version of musical chairs. The last spot left standing with a viable path toward a starting job was in Buffalo, where the only guy left on the depth chart was Nathan Peterman.
McCarron is overrated by virtue of having not played much over the past two seasons, but he is certainly an upgrade on Peterman. For a team that spent months privately pining about how badly it wanted a traditional quarterback in lieu of the talented passer it had in Tyrod Taylor, the 6-foot-4 McCarron is about as tall as viable passers come.
His two-year, $10 million deal is essentially backup money, so assuming the Bills use their two first-round picks to trade up in the draft to grab a quarterback, McCarron's contract won't preclude Buffalo from keeping him on the roster as a backup in 2019. Of course, the Bills might also be paying a premium for a passer who isn't much better than replacement-level.
OL Andre Smith, Cardinals
It has been approximately five years or so since Smith looked like a starting offensive lineman in the NFL. He was excellent on the right side for the Bengals in 2013, but struggled in 2014 before hitting injured reserve with a triceps injury. Since coming back, he has been hanging on for dear life and getting jobs on his past reputation. Smith committed nine penalties in 14 starts for the Bengals in 2015 and was brutal during four games with the Vikings before going down with another torn triceps. He made his way back to the Bengals and was moving to guard, but injuries and subpar play pushed him to tackle, where he committed seven more penalties in eight starts.
The Cardinals just gave Smith a two-year, $8 million deal. If anything should tell you how desperate teams are for offensive line help -- and what little faith they have in their own ability to develop offensive linemen into even swing tackles -- it's this deal.
QB Case Keenum, Broncos
Six years ago, the Broncos were happy to get into and win a bidding war for Peyton Manning, who produced three great seasons, two Super Bowl trips, and one title over the ensuing five seasons. This time around, though, general manager John Elway either didn't think he had a shot at winning the war for Kirk Cousins or didn't want to bide his time at the table. The Broncos moved to Plan B before Plan A even came off the table, as they came to terms on a deal with Keenum late Monday night.
The two-year, $36 million question is simple: Will Keenum be the guy the league valued as something close to a replacement-level passer last offseason, or the quarterback who finished fourth in passer rating and second in Total QBR? Answering it is much more complicated. When I wrote about Keenum's breakout campaign, I wondered how much of what we saw was Keenum taking a step forward, and how much was being placed in a favorable situation for success.
Superficially, the Broncos and Vikings have some offensive similarities, but Denver shades a tick worse across the board. Denver has a pair of talented wideouts in Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, but unlike the duo of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, the Broncos' wideouts are on the wrong side of 30 and declining as opposed to improving. Each team has invested plenty in their offensive lines, but the jury's decidedly still out on Denver's Menelik Watson and Garett Bolles, with the 25-year-old Bolles committing 12 penalties and allowing 8.5 sacks during his debut season at left tackle.
Crucially, the Denver running game isn't as effective as Minnesota's, given that the Broncos ranked 23rd in DVOA last season. (The Vikings were 18th.) The Broncos also lack a useful tight end in the passing game, as they appear set to turn things over to rookie Jake Butt after he missed his entire rookie season recovering from an injury. Minnesota had Kyle Rudolph as a safety valve and red zone weapon for Keenum.
There's probably still at least one more piece to be added to make life easier for Keenum. Broncos offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave was able to piece together a division-winning offense in Minnesota with Christian Ponder, but that was with an MVP-caliber season from Adrian Peterson. (Musgrave then went to the Raiders, where the offense fell apart immediately after he left, so there's that.) If the Broncos can keep Keenum in situations in which he is facing third-and-manageable and can pick apart zone coverages, he's going to do just fine. If Keenum's down multiple scores and having to march up and down the field, as was the case in the NFC Championship Game, he's going to struggle.
Keenum will be Denver's starting quarterback in 2018, but there aren't really any promises past that. He's guaranteed $25 million, but if the Broncos draft a quarterback in the first round this year, it wouldn't be shocking to see Denver move on from Keenum via trade or release after this season. Last season, Keenum proved he belonged in the discussion of viable starting quarterbacks in this league. Now he has to prove last year wasn't a fluke.
Trade: Broncos deal QB Trevor Siemian to Vikings
Grade for Broncos: C+
Grade for Vikings: B+
After adding Keenum, the Broncos found themselves with an overstuffed quarterback room and dealt one away to Minnesota. Denver sent Week 1 starter Siemian to the Vikings along with a seventh-round pick for a 2019 fifth-round selection. The move presumably installs Paxton Lynch as the primary backup for Keenum depending on what the Broncos do in the draft, a situation that would not inspire much hope in the case of a Keenum injury. For a guy the Broncos might have considered cutting, though, a fifth-round pick a year from now is better than nothing.
Siemian should benefit from moving to a much more comfortable quarterback situation in Minnesota, given that the Broncos struggled to protect Siemian during each of his two seasons in charge of the Denver offense. Even given those concerns, Siemian exceeded expectations for stretches of time and looked like a top-16 backup, if not necessarily a starter his team would be excited about. In a league in which guys like that go for around $5 million per year, Siemian is a relative bargain for the final year of his deal at $1.9 million. The Vikings should also be reaping comp picks next offseason, so if they don't re-sign Siemian, it would hardly be a surprise for them to recoup the fifth-rounder they sent to Denver in 2020.
DE Julius Peppers, Panthers
The best free-agent deals don't expose a team to long-term risk, and sign a talented player to a deal below his market value. That's what Carolina has done here in signing Peppers to a one-year, $5 million deal after the 38-year-old racked up 11 sacks for the Panthers last season. Granted, it's likely the North Carolina product only wanted to continue his career in-state. It's also likely Peppers takes a step backward in 2018, given that his 11 sacks came on just 17 quarterback knockdowns. Even given those caveats, signing a veteran defensive end who can rush the quarterback at this price is about as good as free agency can get.
G/C Weston Richburg, 49ers
Kyle Shanahan has his Alex Mack. After a frustrating, inconsistent season in Atlanta in 2015, Shanahan's offense only really began to click with the Falcons in 2016 after they brought over Mack from the Browns as an unrestricted free agent. There were other factors -- the offensive line was the healthiest in football that year, to start -- but it would be foolish to say Mack didn't play a major part in pushing the Falcons toward the Super Bowl.
The 49ers have orchestrated some curious re-signings over the past week, notably retaining former Seahawks washout Garry Gilliam to serve as a swing tackle and bringing back the underwhelming Daniel Kilgore on a three-year, $11.8 million deal. It seemed like general manager John Lynch was setting his sights low in protecting Jimmy Garoppolo, but the Richburg move makes things look much better. He'll slot in as the starting center, where he has both the athleticism to excel in a zone scheme and the brains to set and reset protections. Kilgore will likely move to guard, where he'll fight with Zane Beadles, Laken Tomlinson and 2016 first-rounder Joshua Garnett for starting work.
Richburg's deal, perhaps not coincidentally, resembles Mack's. The former Giants center reportedly gets a five-year, $47.5 million contract from the 49ers, just a tad more than the five years and $45 million Mack got in his deal with the Falcons. Mack's contract included $28.5 million in guarantees, identical to the mark Richburg hit in his deal. Richburg doesn't have the pedigree Mack had when he made the move, but the 26-year-old is also hitting free agency four years younger than Mack was when he signed with Atlanta. In all, this is a very reasonable move to make a massive upgrade on the interior for San Francisco.
TE Darren Fells; CB Terrance Mitchell; RB Carlos Hyde, Browns
Grade for Fells: C
Grade for Mitchell: D+
Grade for Hyde: C
The effort to make the Browns suitable for human consumption continues with three signings of adequate, low-ceiling players. The 6-foot-7 Fells, a converted basketball player, did little to translate that athleticism into production in Arizona. He caught on with the Lions for $1 million last year and briefly pushed Eric Ebron out of the lineup, making him one of the more popular Lions to the Detroit fanbase. He caught 17 passes for 177 yards and three scores before Ebron took back his job as the primary pass-catching tight end. As a player who turns 32 in April, Fells probably isn't going to turn into a useful tight end anytime soon, but the Browns gave him a three-year, $12 million deal to presumably serve as a blocking tight end next to David Njoku.
Mitchell bounced around several teams before landing with the Chiefs, as current Browns general manager John Dorsey snapped him up in 2016. Mitchell showed more than the Chiefs could have expected in 2016, but he was torched for stretches in 2017 and benched more than once. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Mitchell played zero defensive snaps so the Chiefs could run a visibly disinterested Darrelle Revis out at corner alongside Marcus Peters and Steven Nelson. Mitchell also got a three-year, $12 million deal, presumably out of fear that the Browns wouldn't be able to use one of their 10 draft picks on a player better than the Oregon product.
Hyde is certainly the most notable of the three players, but it's difficult to believe that the Browns also couldn't have drafted and developed a better running back than the former 49ers starter, who is on a three-year, $15 million pact. The one hope is that Hyde ends up in a scheme which plays to his strengths in the short-term alongside Tyrod Taylor. As Evan Silva pointed out on Twitter, Hyde has been significantly more effective in the shotgun than he has under center as a pro, which is also true for Taylor. The bright side of the Hyde signing is what it suggests: that the Browns likely won't use the No. 1 overall pick on Saquon Barkley and intend to draft a quarterback.
WR Ryan Grant, Ravens
Editor's note: Grant failed his physical and his Ravens deal is null and void, sources tell ESPN's Adam Schefter.
In a two-day span in which fortune has smiled on midtier wideouts, Grant was no exception. The Tulane product was always one of Jay Gruden's favorites during his time in Washington, but it was also telling that the organization signed Terrelle Pryor to a one-year deal last year in lieu of promoting Grant into the starting lineup.
When Pryor bombed out, Grant assumed a larger role and posted a 45-573-4 line. He was better than those numbers indicated, given that Grant caught 70.3 percent of the passes thrown to him despite the fact that his average target came 9.6 yards downfield. The only wideouts in the league with 50 targets or more who caught a higher percentage of their passes while picking up their average target further downfield were Allen Hurns, Michael Thomas, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Tyreek Hill and Ted Ginn.
It would hardly have been a surprise to see Grant develop a modest market, but in a league in which Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola just came up with significant multiyear deals, the Ravens had to pay Grant like he had been a starter for years in Washington. The Ravens gave Grant $29 million over four years with a $10 million signing bonus and $14.5 million guaranteed at signing, a serious deal for a guy who hasn't made it to 1,000 yards after four seasons in the league. That's not a 1,000-yard season; it's 1,000 yards over his entire career.
Grant has upside, but this was a situation where a desperate Ravens team probably needed to look into the trade market or wait to add someone when teams make veteran cuts in June. Jeremy Maclin didn't really impress after making that move last year, but Baltimore got plenty out of Steve Smith several years back, and they're making a significant bet on Grant given the contract terms. I'm more inclined to like the one-year, $5 million deal they gave former Cardinals standout John Brown.
QB Chase Daniel, Bears
Daniel signed a two-year, $10 million deal to back up Mitchell Trubisky in Chicago, which makes sense given that he knows the system new coach Matt Nagy will be running after spending time in Kansas City. It also treats "knowing the system" like it's the most valuable skill imaginable, as if the offensive mind the Bears are trusting to mold their franchise quarterback couldn't possibly teach another veteran passer the complexities and mysteries of Andy Reid's offense.
It's easier to have Daniel around, of course, but this deal has $7 million in guarantees. If Daniel collects the $10 million on this contract, it will take him to $34.3 million in earnings as an NFL quarterback. To this point, he has thrown all of 78 regular-season passes, which have produced a combined passer rating of 81.1. You can't even make the "He's developed young quarterbacks" argument, because Daniel has spent most of his career backing up Drew Brees and Alex Smith. Daniel was behind Carson Wentz in 2016, but the Eagles felt his advice was so important that they ate more than $4 million to cut him and replace Daniel with Nick Foles instead.
There's a narrow line in which players can remain inexplicably valuable despite never having to actually exhibit any of that value on the field. In a league with an incredibly high attrition rate where so many players are forced to spend the majority of their career on rookie contracts, Daniel has somehow found a way to repeatedly make money without ever having to step onto a football field in meaningful action. He gets an A-plus for life.
LB Anthony Hitchens, Chiefs
The Chiefs certainly went after their Derrick Johnson replacement. Hitchens seemed likely to head to the Colts, where former Cowboys linebackers coach Matt Eberflus was installed as defensive coordinator as part of the Zombie Josh McDaniels staff, but the Chiefs outbid former Kansas City executive Chris Ballard to bring Hitchens to town on a massive contract. The Iowa product signed a five-year, $45 million deal with a $14 million signing bonus and $21.3 million due over the first two years of his new contract.
This is a remarkably large deal for a player who wasn't a building block for the Cowboys, who weren't a very good defense while Hitchens was in the lineup. Dallas drafted Jaylon Smith in the second round of the 2016 draft in part to replace Hitchens, although Smith ended up not being ready until the 2017 campaign. Hitchens suffered a tibial plateau fracture in the preseason, which was the same injury that cost J.J. Watt his season, but he came back and had his best season as a pro despite the presence of Smith in the lineup.
What would concern me is that even during his best season, Hitchens was lining up next to an absolute superstar linebacker in Sean Lee, and the Cowboys' defense fell apart with Lee out of the lineup. Here are their numbers with and without Lee in the lineup:
Seems pretty straightforward. The Cowboys were a disaster with their best defensive player on the sidelines. Makes sense. What about Hitchens? Here you go:
The Cowboys were a significantly worse pass defense with Hitchens on the field. We can't pin that entirely on him, but when you're paying an inside linebacker $9 million per year, you're expecting him to be an every-down player and difference-maker against both the run and the pass. Hitchens should be a sound run defender, but run-stuffing inside linebackers aren't difficult to find in late March. The Chiefs are projecting Hitchens to be a Pro Bowl-caliber inside linebacker and paying him like one despite never showing that sort of tape on the field. More often than not, that ends up turning into a disappointing free-agent deal.
WR Taylor Gabriel, Bears
I would not peg the 2016 Browns as bastions of talent evaluation, but when Cleveland cut Gabriel in 2016, half of the league's teams -- including Ryan Pace's Chicago Bears -- passed on adding Gabriel as a waiver claim before the Falcons added him. Gabriel had an anonymous few weeks with the Falcons and suffered a concussion, but he suddenly turned into a big-play machine when he came back. Gabriel scored six times in nine games, including four touchdowns of 35 yards or more. The only player with more was Kansas City's Tyreek Hill.
It seemed likely Gabriel would regress toward the mean, and that's what happened. The guy who scored just one touchdown in two seasons with the Browns scored one in 16 games with the Falcons. The 27-year-old Gabriel averaged a modest 11.5 yards per catch, with just two plays of 35 yards or more all season, let alone touchdowns. In 2016, Gabriel caught 7 of the 13 deep passes (traveling 16-plus yards in the air) Matt Ryan threw to him. In 2017, Gabriel was 0-for-9 on those same throws.
As a screens-and-bombs receiver, Gabriel can be a useful part of an offense, but good teams find those players lurking for relatively cheap on the bottom of rosters or on the waiver wire, which is exactly where the Falcons found Gabriel. Gabriel might end up playing the Hill role in Chicago's offense, but he's going to have to take a step forward as a player to live up to the four-year, $26 million deal and $14 million guaranteed he got from the Bears this week.
CB Trumaine Johnson, Jets
I wrote on Tuesday about how players at other positions would struggle to emulate the Kirk Cousins path of repeatedly betting on yourself and ending up with a fully guaranteed deal in free agency. Johnson didn't end up with a fully guaranteed contract, but his path is going to be a more realistic outcome for non-quarterbacks. After being franchised twice by the Rams, Johnson hit free agency and came away with a massive contract -- a five-year, $72.5 million deal with $34 million in guarantees -- that should make him the second-highest-paid cornerback in the league after Washington's Josh Norman.
The Jets pretty clearly want to rebuild their defense through their secondary, which is unsurprising given how coach Todd Bowles loves to throw defensive backs on the field and blitz. After spending their top two picks in 2017 on Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, this move gives Bowles his Patrick Peterson. There are minor concerns about Johnson, mostly regarding his health, given that the 28-year-old missed a total of 11 games from 2014 to '16 before playing a full season again in 2017.
It wouldn't be shocking to see Johnson's ball skills come back if he's thrown at more frequently, too. The Montana product nabbed 15 passes across 55 games during his first four seasons in the league, but he has just three picks in 30 games over the past couple of years. Interception rates for defensive backs with ball skills are almost entirely random from year to year, so given that Johnson has interceptions in the past, it seems likely they'll pop up again at a higher rate going forward. The Jets probably still need to go after another cornerback and might re-sign Morris Claiborne, but Johnson's a major building block for the Jets' defense.
G Josh Kline, Titans
Tennessee might be transitioning away from the exotic smashmouth gameplan under new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, but it's still good business to keep a sound offensive line in front of Marcus Mariota. The Titans are about to make a mammoth offer to Taylor Lewan, who (like all offensive tackles) owes Nate Solder a thank-you card, but Kline was a useful run-blocking guard for the Titans over the past couple of years.
It's no surprise that the Tennessee braintrust wanted to keep another ex-Patriots player around, but it didn't have to break the bank to re-sign Kline. His four-year, $26 million deal contains $12 million in guarantees, which is midtier starting guard money. It's a noticeable step down from the $34 million the Saints gave to Larry Warford on a four-year deal last year, and while Warford's the better player, it wouldn't have been stunning to see his deal held up as a baseline for non-star interior linemen hitting free agency in a market bereft of useful players this offseason.
OT Nate Solder, Giants
Unlike most teams, the Patriots are comfortable letting their impending free agents hit the market, trusting that they'll bring an offer back that the Patriots can come close to matching. In recent years, both Dont'a Hightower and Devin McCourty were able to solicit offers before coming back to New England.
The solution, then, is for a team to offer so much money that the Patriots simply have to pass. That appears to be what happened with Solder, who just pushed the left tackle market forward by a significant degree. Trent Williams held the previous tackle record with an annual average salary of $13.8 million, but after signing a four-year, $62 million deal with $35 million in guarantees, Solder's kicked the can forward to $15 million per season.
It's a staggering sum for a guy who has never made a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro team. Solder has been an above-average left tackle for the vast majority of his career, with a few blips here and there, and he has stayed relatively healthy outside of the 2015 season. He was responsible for a career-high nine penalties in 2017, but it's also fair to note that Solder missed training camp and spent the year helping his son fight cancer, a disease the Colorado product defeated himself before the 2014 campaign.
The Giants would probably admit that they overpaid for Solder, but they needed offensive line help more than anyone else in the league. Solder will immediately slot in on Eli Manning's blind side, which allows the Giants to move Ereck Flowers to a position for which he might be more suited, like right tackle or insurance salesman. New York still needs to add as many hog mollies as general manager Dave Gettleman can get his hands on, but Solder should lock down one key position of need, albeit at an extravagant price.
As for the Patriots, they're suddenly in the tackle market. They might make a renewed effort to sign LaAdrian Waddle and move either him or Marcus Cannon to left tackle, but that would be a downgrade at a key position. If the Eagles release Jason Peters, it wouldn't be a shock to see the Patriots target him as a stopgap while they draft a tackle, possibly at 31.
LB Nigel Bradham, Eagles
Do the Eagles have to let anyone leave after all? It seemed like Bradham was one of the few concessions Philly would have to make to the realities of the salary cap this offseason, but after the Eagles let Bradham hit the market, they were able to bring him back on a whopper of a deal. The former Bills starter, whom the Eagles signed to a two-year, $7 million deal two seasons ago after hiring former Buffalo defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, signed a five-year, $40 million deal to stick around in Philadelphia.
That amount of money -- $8 million per year -- is certainly at the high end of the market for linebackers who don't rush the quarterback. It's a little less than the $8.9 million per year that Dont'a Hightower, a younger player with a better track record, got to stay with the Patriots last year. I don't doubt that there was genuine interest in Bradham, who took over at middle linebacker after Jordan Hicks went down without skipping a beat. More so than most deals, this contract will be about the specific terms and whether the Eagles are really paying $8 million per year for any length of time.
It seems likely that the Eagles were deciding between Bradham and Mychal Kendricks to play alongside Hicks in their sub packages, and the move to re-sign Bradham suggests that they might be able to find a trade partner for Kendricks. Philly's decision to re-sign Bradham at this price also suggests that they won't be bringing back Patrick Robinson, who was arguably a better player in 2017. The Bradham deal isn't going to sink the Eagles, but when Carson Wentz comes due for an extension in two years, it seems likely that Bradham will be one of the first guys out the door.
RB Jerick McKinnon, 49ers
McKinnon hit free agency in pursuit of a deal where he could serve as a primary running back, but his case for a larger role isn't quite clear. The Georgia Southern product was hyperefficient over his first two seasons, averaging 4.9 yards per carry over 165 rushing attempts, but as the larger half of a rotation over the two ensuing seasons, his 309 rush attempts have produced just 3.6 yards per attempt. 14.2 percent of his runs have turned into first downs, which ranks 50th among 51 qualifying backs over that time frame.
Some of that could be chalked up to a dismal offensive line in 2016, but McKinnon wasn't much better behind a much better line in 2017. He also fumbled three times after going his entire career without one. At this point, he profiles as a third-down back with big-play ability, but asking him to run the ball more than five or six times per game is probably too much.
It was shocking, then, to see the 49ers give McKinnon a four-year deal for $30 million. The only running back on a multiyear deal with a larger annual salary than McKinnon is LeSean McCoy. San Francisco did this last year when it fell in love with Kyle Juszczyk, didn't trust its ability to mold a fullback, and gave him a deal more than 200 percent larger than any other fullback's contract. (Juszczyk subsequently made the Pro Bowl, but that's because he's the most famous fullback; he was mostly an anonymous receiver, didn't contribute as a runner, and the 49ers averaged both more yards per carry, expected points per run, and a higher first down rate when Juszczyk wasn't on the field.)
Kyle Shanahan watched his dad Mike's offenses produce 1,000-yard backs seemingly out of thin air. His most successful backs in the pros have been exclusively midround picks on rookie deals in Steve Slaton, Alfred Morris, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, none of whom was drafted before the third round. McKinnon should do better under Shanahan's tutelage. He might even be very good, given what the 49ers have around him, but is he going to suddenly become the second-best running back in football? Even if he does, why aren't the 49ers confident they can develop a young back into a worthwhile contributor in a scheme which has been doing that for nearly three decades now? General manager John Lynch and company have certainly made some positive moves, and they have money to burn, but the players they've gotten stuck on -- Juszczyk, Malcolm Smith and now McKinnon -- have produced incomprehensible contracts.
We'll revisit this grade if the terms of the contract don't match the initial numbers, but if not, this is one of the most stunning deals of the offseason.
TE Jimmy Graham, Packers
It was a strange run in Seattle for the former Saints star, who never quite lived up to the lofty heights of his peak years in New Orleans but did manage to overcome a serious knee injury to serve as an effective member of the offense. Graham oddly wasn't a red zone factor before the knee injury in 2015, catching just two touchdown passes, then retained his downfield ability immediately afterward in averaging better than 14 yards per reception in 2016. Last season, Graham was strictly a red zone weapon, as he averaged just 9.1 yards per catch but scored 10 touchdowns. All 10 came in the red zone, which was the most of any tight end in the league.
Even given a list which includes players like Rob Gronkowski and Randy Moss, nobody is that effective in the red zone from year-to-year. Eighteen other players have scored 10 or more touchdowns in the red zone since 2001, and not a single one of them made it back to double-digits the following year. Those guys scored an average of 4.8 red zone touchdowns the following season, so while the 6-foot-7 Graham obviously has the frame to make plays in the end zone, paying him like he's guaranteed to produce inside the 20 would be a mistake.
The Packers are giving Graham, 31, a three-year, $30 million deal with $22 million guaranteed over the first two years of the contract, so it's safe to say that they think they can either get guaranteed production in the red zone or think the guy who could run past linebackers or jump over safeties up the seam play after play will be back. It's certainly possible -- Aaron Rodgers has a way of making receivers look young again -- but Graham has the highest annual average of any tight end in football and the largest three-year number with this deal, identical figures to the contract he had previously signed in New Orleans. Is there anyone who has thought Graham is the league's top tight end or anything close to it over the ensuing four seasons?
DL Muhammad Wilkerson, Packers
It's almost difficult to believe that a player as productive as Wilkerson could see things go south as quickly as they did in New York. The Temple product racked up 18 sacks and 49 quarterback knockdowns from 2014 to '15 ... only to generate just eight sacks and 18 knockdowns over the two subsequent campaigns. The New York media was lousy with reports of Wilkerson plodding through practices and games, and by the end of his run, he was being suspended for missing multiple team meetings.
The natural assumption is that Wilkerson got his big contract from the Jets before the 2016 season and suddenly stopped caring. Maybe he didn't get along with new coach Todd Bowles. Perhaps Wilkerson was a product of playing alongside Damon Harrison and a motivated Sheldon Richardson, although Wilkerson did get to spend the last two years with the wildly talented Leonard Williams. Under any circumstance, the Jets-Wilkerson relationship needed to end for the sake of both parties.
If you believe the Wilkerson-got-rich scenario, you should probably like the one-year, $8-million deal the Packers handed him on Tuesday, given that the 28-year-old would presumably be using his one-year deal as leverage for a multiyear contract to come. The Packers might not necessarily want to sign Wilkerson to a long-term pact, but for one year, he should be motivated to play his best football. An interested Wilkerson and a healthy Mike Daniels would be one of the best one-two punches in the league.
Tuesday, March 13
RB Dion Lewis, Titans
Let's take a minute and bow our heads for the folks who owned Derrick Henry in dynasty leagues. Henry looked to have a clear path to the No. 1 job in Tennessee after the Titans cut DeMarco Murray, but his time in the sun lasted all of five days. Mike Vrabel & Co. added another former Patriots running back to the fold by signing Lewis to a four-year, $23 million deal with $11.5 million in guarantees.
This is a logical 1A-1B punch at running back. Henry is a bruising power back, but he isn't much of a receiver. Lewis can do just about everything, but he can't stay healthy. Give Henry and Lewis a 50-50 split of the snaps on early downs to keep Lewis fresh, give the former Eagles draftee most of the third-down reps, stick Henry in near the goal line, and you've got a functional rotation at halfback.
It does seem bizarre, though, that coaches and personnel men leave the Patriots and fail to notice how Bill Belichick rarely commits serious resources to running backs. The only running back to ever get a contract this big (after adjusting for cap inflation) with the Patriots was Corey Dillon, and his five-year deal ended up turning into a mess and lasted two seasons. I wouldn't doubt Lewis' talent, but it's telling that Belichick is confident that he can always find another useful running back, and his personnel tree doesn't feel the same way.
RB Jonathan Stewart, Giants
You would be forgiven if you thought after reading about Lewis and Stewart linking up with prior bosses that the NFL was essentially a classmate reunion site masquerading as a football league. Pressed with the need to find a running back after Andre Brown, David Wilson, Peyton Hillis, Andre Williams, Rashad Jennings, Shane Vereen, Orleans Darkwa, Paul Perkins and Wayne Gallman failed to make the job their own for various reasons, general manager Dave Gettleman shockingly found that the best candidate happened to be a guy he knew from his old job.
Enter the longtime Panthers back Stewart, who averaged 3.4 yards per carry and had just one run of more than 20 yards (a 60-yard touchdown against the Vikings) last season. He did this behind an offensive line with arguably the best guard duo in football in Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell. The Giants' have exactly one guard, John Jerry, who has taken an NFL snap on offense before. Stewart's also a nonfactor as a receiver and isn't getting better with age.
It's possible that the soon-to-be-31-year-old Stewart has something left in the tank, but it's difficult to believe that the league was beating down his door to the point that the Giants needed to guarantee him nearly $3 million on a two-year, $6.9 million pact. It would be more surprising for Stewart to return to his old form than it would be for Darkwa or Gallman to outperform him with a fair shot in 2018.
CB Nickell Robey-Coleman, Rams
There is a limit at which every NFL team will repeatedly question cornerbacks' ability to play because of their height. At 5-foot-8, Robey-Coleman challenges that limit. The USC product was a solid slot cornerback for the Bills, but after one slip in his level of play, the Bills benched him and released him after the 2016 season. He promptly caught on a one-year deal for $855,000 with the Rams and immediately returned to his previous level of play, with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips getting the best out of him.
Now, Robey-Coleman will get some financial security as the slot cornerback in what might be the best trio of cornerbacks in football. The Rams were able to bring the 26-year-old back on a three-year, $15.8 million extension with $8 million in guarantees. That's an incredibly friendly deal, given that Aaron Colvin, arguably an inferior cornerback, got four years and $34 million with $18 million guaranteed.
Colvin might offer more upside, and Robey-Coleman probably won't be able to make it as a cornerback on the outside if the Rams need him there on an every-down basis. (The only cornerback in league history to make a Pro Bowl at 5-foot-8 was Tim Jennings, who had uncommon ball skills that Robey-Coleman hasn't exhibited so far in his career.) It's also true that smaller cornerbacks tend to age poorly once they get on the wrong side of 30, but this deal locks Robey-Coleman up through his age-29 campaign. The Rams should be all set at cornerback for a while.
CB Malcolm Butler, Titans
If you were wondering whether Butler's stock were going to be impacted by whatever happened during Super Bowl week, the answer is quite comfortably no. The former Super Bowl hero left New England for one of the many Patriots outposts around the league, as coach Mike Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson shelled out a mammoth deal to bring their second former Patriots cornerback to Tennessee. Butler will join Logan Ryan by virtue of a five-year, $61 million deal with about $30 million in guarantees.
It's about where Butler would have come in, even without the Super Bowl controversy, given that this is the ninth-largest maximum value in any five-year deal for any cornerback. Maybe Butler would have hit $65 million without anything notable happening in Minnesota, but it wouldn't have been $70 million. The 5-foot-11 Butler lacks ideal height in a league in which every team wants its cornerbacks to be tall. He also struggled through a brutal 2017 campaign even before the Super Bowl, as the West Alabama product was the only Patriots defensive back who didn't get better as the season went along.
I'm not surprised by the money, but the landing spot does seem strange. The Titans gave a three-year, $30 million deal to Ryan last year and then used a first-round pick on Adoree' Jackson, who had a promising rookie season, given how badly debuting cornerbacks usually perform. The Butler deal arguably leaves them overinvested at cornerback, and though the three-cornerback nickel package is essentially a base defense these days, nickel corners come far more cheaply than Ryan or Butler (or require less draft capital than Jackson). Given that Ryan's deal has less than $700,000 in dead money waiting in 2019, it seems plausible that this will be his last season in Tennessee.
CB Prince Amukamara, Bears
Life is about compromises. If you're willing to forego a couple of games per year and accept an almost pathological aversion to interceptions, Amukamara is an excellent cornerback. The former Giants first-round pick was an above-average starter for the Jags on a one-year deal in 2016, but his market failed to develop, and he took a one-year deal to go play with the Bears. Amukamara then repeated the feat across from Kyle Fuller, but he was able to find a long-term home this time.
The Bears gave the 28-year-old Amukamara a three-year, $27 million deal to stick around in Chicago and play alongside Fuller for at least one more season, given that the Bears stuck their own former first-rounder with the transition tag. Injuries are the only real concern. Amukamara has missed 29 games as a pro with various maladies and has played just one full 16-game season (2013). It's an identical max contract to the one Joe Haden received from the Steelers, but that was in August, as opposed to the rush of free agency in February. Haden is the better player of the two, but Amukamara is a solid cornerback and source of on-field stability for a young secondary and a defense that could be about to rise up.
CB Aaron Colvin, Texans
After the Jaguars stole the Texans' nickel cornerback by handing out a massive deal to A.J. Bouye last year, Houston has managed to return the favor. With Bouye and Jalen Ramsey forming the best one-two punch at cornerback in football, the Texans have stolen away a guy who played more than two-thirds of Jacksonville's defensive snaps in 2017 by signing Colvin to a four-year, $34 million deal with $18 million guaranteed.
It isn't as big a deal as the contract the Jags gave to Bouye, but I also think there's less upside here. Colvin was a starter for the Jaguars in 2015 but struggled enough for Jacksonville to draft Ramsey and sign Prince Amukamara to take over as starting corners. When Amukamara left after 2016, the Jags signed Bouye, as opposed to promoting Colvin back into the starting lineup.
The Texans sorely needed the help at cornerback, given that Johnathan Joseph is a free agent and Johnson has been alternately injured and ineffective over the past two seasons. He might profile best as a slot corner, but Colvin has the size (6-foot) to play on the outside, and teams have found some of the best free-agent signings in recent memory by promoting cornerbacks into bigger roles, with Bouye and Casey Hayward two of the most recent examples. The Texans still need to address their offensive line, and Colvin could fail, but he's a high-risk, high-reward addition at this price tag.
OT Chris Hubbard, Browns
For the second year in a row, the Browns will attempt to improve their offensive line by stealing from an AFC North rival. After signing Kevin Zeitler last year, the Browns plugged the last remaining hole on their line by picking up Hubbard, who served ably as a utility lineman for the Steelers while starting 14 games over the past two seasons. Hubbard's five-year, $37.5 million deal guarantees him $18 million, which would be upper-echelon money for a right tackle, if not quite at the tier of Lane Johnson and Rick Wagner.
Ideally, Hubbard would replace Shon Coleman on the right side and form a pair of bookends with future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas on the left side. Things might not work out that way, given that the Browns are still waiting to hear from Thomas on whether he intends to retire. (Cleveland also added former Broncos tackle Donald Stephenson on a one-year deal, but Stephenson might not make the roster if Thomas comes back.) If Thomas does retire, Hubbard will likely move over to play left tackle, where his professional experience is limited to fill-in duty. The Browns could also draft a left tackle in April, but Hubbard should be a useful starter somewhere on this line in 2018.
QB Sam Bradford, Cardinals
There's no quitting Bradford. The 2010 first overall pick has intoxicated organizations for nearly a decade with his alluring mix of checkdowns, flashes of brilliance, and knee injuries, and the latest stop on his run will be Arizona. It seems reasonable to note that Bradford still has to pass a physical, which might be more than nominal given that the Oklahoma star has what Mike Zimmer called a "degenerative" knee condition. At the same time, given the way the quarterback market appears to be shaking out, it seems to be Bradford or Bust for Arizona.
The last time we saw Bradford for any length of time was in 2016, when he had his best season as a pro behind a horrific offensive line in Minnesota. It was also a season in which he averaged 6.24 air yards per pass, which was last in the league and the second-lowest mark for any starting quarterback of the past decade. He looked excellent against the Saints in Week 1 of 2017, only to hit the shelf with a mysterious knee injury that limited him to one ugly half against the Bears a month later. Case Keenum picked up the slack and subsequently played like a Pro Bowler in Bradford's absence.
Bradford will be joining an offense changing its stripes in Arizona, given that the downfield attack of Bruce Arians will presumably be replaced by a shorter scheme under new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. McCoy helped rebuild Philip Rivers' career by making a similar scheme change, and the Cardinals do have a series of useful underneath targets in Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson. He also has an offensive line which might remind Bradford of those 2016 Vikings.
Ideally, though, you don't want to pay a guy who is going to throw the ball 6.5 yards down the field every play $20 million per year, which is what the Cardinals are doing with this two-year, $40 million contract. It seems incredible that Drew Brees is making only $5 million per year more than Bradford, but here we are. Arizona will be right up against the salary cap before having addressed its offensive line or signing Johnson and Markus Golden to extensions, which doesn't seem ideal.
The most likely scenario is that the Cardinals draft a quarterback in the first round and use Bradford as a bridge quarterback to stay competitive while they develop him. Maybe that works out, but it's also fair to wonder whether they would have been better off signing someone like Josh McCown for far less and using the savings to help out the line. Arizona is paying Bradford as if he provides a level of security when few quarterbacks in the league are less certain.
CB Bashaud Breeland, Panthers
The highlight of Breeland's career is still that Monday Night Football game against the Cowboys in 2014, when the then-rookie cornerback matched up against prime Dez Bryant and held him to three catches and 30 yards (with a touchdown, admittedly) on seven targets.
It looked like Breeland might blossom into a top-tier cornerback, especially after Washington made his life easier by signing Josh Norman before the 2016 season, but he never seemed to take that next step on a more consistent basis. By the end of his final year in Washington, Breeland was comfortably the team's third-best cornerback behind Norman and Kendall Fuller, who is now in Kansas City.
The talent is certainly there with Breeland, and he has a reputation of being dedicated to the game of football, but it seemed by the end of his time in Washington that a change of scenery might suit all parties. The Panthers had a hole at cornerback after trading away Daryl Worley, and Breeland won't be expected to serve as the No. 1 guy with James Bradberry on the opposite side of the field. For a guy who just turned 26 and has started 57 NFL games, the Panthers have to be happy they needed to guarantee only Breeland $11 million as part of a three-year, $24 million pact.
QB Josh McCown, Jets
It seemed foolish for the Jets to turn their quarterback position over to McCown last year, given that he was turning 38 and the Jets were going nowhere, but he stayed healthy until December and delivered his best season since that incredible half-year with the Bears in 2012. New York promptly fired offensive coordinator John Morton after the season and promoted quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates to the job, so it's perhaps no surprise that Gang Green was interested in bringing back McCown for another season after the Jets missed out on Kirk Cousins.
At one year and $10 million, McCown is a stopgap until the Jets figure out their long-term solution under center. If he plays the way he did last season, the Jets won't regret the money, but McCown's advancing age makes it reasonably dangerous that he'll fall off a cliff and be unplayable. I'd be more concerned about the injuries, given that McCown has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career; it's telling that McCown's ability to make it through 13 games last season appeared to surpass the Jets' expectations. It's far more likely we'll look back on this move and conclude the Jets overpaid McCown.
Now, let's see what the Jets do next. Do they continue to go after Teddy Bridgewater and bring both Bridgewater and McCown to camp? Do they draft a quarterback with the sixth pick and develop him behind McCown? The move to bring back McCown is reasonable enough, but if this is the end of the offseason shopping list for the Jets under center, it's a waste of time.
DE Chris Smith, Browns
A former Jaguars rotation lineman, Smith was traded by the Jaguars last year and was quietly productive as a backup defensive end for the Bengals. He has a total of 7.5 sacks and 15 quarterback knockdowns across what amounts to a full season's worth of snaps (669) for a rotation lineman, which is the role he should fill in Cleveland. The Browns have a promising set of pass-rushers in Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah, but nobody else on their roster has picked up more than three sacks in either 2016 or 2017. Smith isn't about to turn into a superstar, but he should spell them both on the edge and could finally break the three-sack mark as a secondary rusher for Cleveland. His three-year, $14 million deal isn't onerous in a market with precious few pass-rushers available.
WR Danny Amendola, Dolphins
The problem isn't in signing Amendola, who proved during the postseason (as he seemingly does on an annual basis) that he can be an effective weapon for stretches of time. The Dolphins will spin the Amendola signing as bringing a veteran into their locker room with proven playoff experience who will improve their team culture, and in a vacuum, that's a logical solution.
Everything else about this, though, is wrong. The Dolphins just spent significant money to bring in Albert Wilson, who profiled best as a replacement for Jarvis Landry in the slot. They're in desperate salary-cap straits and are about to cut Ndamukong Suh to create room to get underneath the cap. The other move they'll make is to trade or cut Ja'Wuan James, which will leave them bereft at three different starting spots along the offensive line. Miami is the guy who went to the repair shop because his car won't start but just spent his last 35 bucks on air fresheners.
In the process, Miami is guaranteeing Amendola -- who turns 33 in November, completed just one full season in five years with the Patriots, and had his pay cut below $2 million for each of his last three years with New England -- $8.3 million as part of a two-year, $12 million pact. Last year, the Dolphins gave significant second-year guarantees to guys like Andre Branch and Lawrence Timmons with disastrous results; Branch is guaranteed $8 million and might be fourth on the defensive end depth chart, while the only reason the Dolphins will be able to get out of Timmons' deal is because the former Steelers standout went missing in Week 1 and voided his guarantees.
Good organizations establish their own culture and draft and develop solutions at positions like slot receiver. Sometimes, as the Patriots did with Wes Welker, they find a talented young player lurking on the back of a team's roster and acquire him as he's on the upswing. Bad organizations are unable to trust their development abilities and pay premiums to go after players on the downside of their careers out of the hope that they can bring some magic success dust from their old homes.
In reality, the Dolphins should be looking at what the Patriots do instead of who they are. How often do the Patriots pay $6 million to the fourth wideout on their depth chart? How often do you hear New England leaking stories to the media about how their culture's a mess to justify bad financial decisions? Amendola is a talented player, and maybe we'll be sitting here in 12 months remarking on how the Dolphins changed their culture, mustered up most of an offensive line out of thin air, and managed to overcome giving away their best offensive and defensive player to add Robert Quinn and a bunch of wide receivers. It's more likely we'll be sitting here watching them burn through another pile of money.
WR Marqise Lee, Jaguars
The former USC product was drafted ahead of Jaguars teammate Allen Robinson, but Robinson and undrafted free agent Allen Hurns moved ahead of Lee on the depth chart. He looked like a wasted pick by 2016, but the second-rounder took advantage of an injury to Hurns to re-emerge as a useful possession receiver for Blake Bortles. Lee moved back into the starting lineup in 2017 and kept up his level of play, only to be slowed by a pair of high ankle sprains at the beginning and end of the season.
Few wideouts who work as far downfield as Lee do more after the catch. Twelve starting receivers averaged more than 5 yards after the catch over the past two years, and of those 12, only Julio Jones and Tyrell Williams caught their average pass farther downfield than Lee. The 26-year-old was also an effective return man in college and was excellent on 18 returns for the Jags in 2016, averaging 30.3 yards per attempt with a touchdown.
With Robinson leaving, Lee takes over as Jacksonville's No. 1 wideout and will now be paid as such. The Jags re-signed him for four years and $36 million with $18 million guaranteed, which is a discount on what Robinson got but for a player with a much lower ceiling. As part of a receiving corps alongside Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole, Lee fills a logical piece of the receiving puzzle for Jacksonville, but it feels like it could have found a similarly productive wideout in June for a fraction of the cost.
QB Kirk Cousins, Vikings
Never let it be said that Cousins isn't thinking about his fellow man. Minnesota's new quarterback might have attempted to set a new precedent for top-tier players by planning to sign a three-year, $84 million deal that is fully guaranteed, the first top-tier, multiyear contract to be fully guaranteed in recent memory. If the league ends up moving to a structure in which players get smaller, more lucrative deals, we'll look back on Cousins as a trailblazer.
It's certainly a surprise given that Cousins' issue in Washington was that the organization never wanted to commit to him on a long-term contract. When he had the opportunity to sign a five- or six-year offer, Cousins instead took a shorter-term deal that will have him either negotiating a new extension with the Vikings after the 2019 season or hitting free agency after the 2020 campaign. He also didn't move the average annual salary needle significantly forward, given that his deal won't reach $30 million per year. At $28 million per year, Cousins' deal will narrowly top Jimmy Garoppolo's per-year average ($27.5 million), although both Garoppolo and Matthew Stafford will make more over the first three years of their new pacts.
Curiously, though, veteran quarterbacks with significant leverage like Cousins have less to gain from fully guaranteed short-term deals than players at just about any other position. He could have called his shot in free agency, signed with the Vikings, and come away with something like a five-year, $150 million deal with $80 million in guarantees. Cousins' representation could have structured the deal in such a way to virtually ensure that he saw at least four years of that money, given that top-tier quarterbacks almost always make it to the next-to-last year in their deal. The Vikings wouldn't have blinked.
It's fair to say that most free-agent contracts are really one- or two-year deals with various team options tacked on the end, and that the Cousins contract is about sacrificing money to wipe away those unguaranteed team options at the end of the deal. It will be difficult for other players to follow this path, if only because they don't have the sort of leverage Cousins did. The pocket quarterback attrition rate and career path makes it far friendlier to go year-to-year, as Cousins did, than it is at other positions.
It might become the new norm for quarterbacks, but think about a truly transcendent franchise player at another position: J.J. Watt. After making $9.3 million over the first three years of his rookie deal, Watt signed a six-year extension for $100 million to secure his future with the Texans. He'll see at least $62.8 million of that extension before the Texans even consider parting ways with Watt, which would be after this season, bringing his earnings through the end of 2018 to $72.1 million.
If he had played out his rookie deal and then gone year-to-year in the hopes of maximizing his eventual free-agent deal with a fully guaranteed contract, Watt would have made just under $18 million over the first five years of his rookie deal. Even with two franchise tags in 2016 and 2017, Watt would have only come away with about $52.3 million through the end of 2017, at which point he likely would be hitting free agency having missed the last two seasons with serious injuries. Unless a team gave Watt $20 million up front for the 2018 season, the star defensive end would have looked back longingly at that long-term deal he passed up after 2013.
None of that is to say that what Cousins is doing is wrong, or that players should take the first guaranteed deal they're offered by any team. The multiple-team-option structure is particularly friendly to teams and shouldn't be the way things are in a league in which the attrition rate for players is impossibly high. Just as the Cousins scenario was the best possible outcome for a player betting on himself, though, the Watt contract was the best possible outcome for a player taking early guaranteed security.
Until we see otherwise, Cousins is less likely to change the market for players than he is to change it for veteran quarterbacks who have already made life-changing sums of money. After his first franchise tag, Cousins had made more than $22.5 million in the NFL. He might very well have taken a reasonable extension if Washington had offered one. Just as Tom Brady chose the privilege of taking below-market deals after making a fortune over his first three NFL contracts, quarterbacks like Cousins are likely to be the only ones who will have the leverage and the slow aging curve required to bet on themselves and wait to make this sort of deal.
As for the on-field fit, Cousins might not be an enormous upgrade on what Minnesota unexpectedly got out of Case Keenum last season. His numbers over the past three seasons are certainly in the same ballpark as Keenum's 2017:
The difference, of course, is that Keenum had been an anonymous backup quarterback for most of his career before breaking out in an offense that had a solid running game, rarely forced him to throw while down multiple scores, and had two of the best wide receivers in football. There was nothing about Keenum's performance that suggested an element of his play was a fluke, but the former Houston star was placed in a great situation to succeed and did so.
Cousins should offer a much higher floor, given that he's been playing at this level for nearly three full seasons since the famous "You Like That?!" game against the Buccaneers. He has played with a solid offensive line in Washington and had useful receivers from Jamison Crowder to Chris Thompson alongside him, but the running game was a mess most of the time under Jay Gruden, ranking 32nd in DVOA in 2015 and 28th last season. (To be fair, they were fourth in 2016.)
Just as Keenum got a boost from playing in Minnesota, it would hardly be a surprise to see Cousins reach new heights, too. The coaching infrastructure should be sound, given that Minnesota blocked quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski from leaving and replaced Pat Shurmur with highly regarded Philadelphia quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. The receivers aren't going anywhere. Running back Dalvin Cook will be back in the fold. For the first time in years, the Vikings had a solid offensive line in pass protection. This is a stacked team, and Cousins locks in the Vikings as one of the three favorites to come out of the NFC.
The only downside is that the Cousins deal might not allow them to keep everyone from that team around. The Vikings have a bevy of budding young stars entering the final years of their respective deals, with Anthony Barr, Stefon Diggs, Danielle Hunter and Eric Kendricks all in line to become free agents at the end of the 2019 season. Cousins almost surely left money on the table, but the structure of this deal doesn't allow the Vikings to be flexible and push some of the cap hits into the future, when the cap will be higher and Cousins would likely be negotiating his next deal.
As a result, it wouldn't be a surprise if Minnesota had to let one or two of those difference-makers leave in free agency. Given that the Vikings had no quarterbacks on the roster and should be locking in above-average play at the game's most important position for years to come, though, it's a trade-off general manager Rick Spielman simply had to make.
OLB Devon Kennard, Lions
It was a bit of a surprise to see Kennard come off the board before free agency began -- at a meaningful price -- but the former Giants linebacker agreed to a three-year, $18.8 million deal to join the Lions. It's possible that Detroit sees more projection in Kennard than the rest of the league, and this might end up as a one-year deal after we see the salary structure, but it's difficult to believe that there was a huge market for the 26-year-old at the rate of more than $6 million per season.
Given the emphasis the Patriots put on versatility, it should be no surprise that a team run by former New Englanders Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn would want a player who at least has the range in his skill set Kennard exhibited during stretches with the Giants. Playing as a strongside linebacker in New York, Kennard did enough as a blitzer to rack up 9.5 sacks over his four seasons with the Giants. He wasn't a particularly active run defender, although the Giants were an excellent run defense after importing Damon Harrison in 2016. The USC product's rookie season -- when he generated 4.5 sacks and five tackles for loss despite starting just six games -- might have been his most productive campaign.
It's possible that Kennard projects better as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but as Patricia noted earlier this month, the Lions will be spending the vast majority of their time in their sub packages anyway. More likely, Detroit will send Kennard after the quarterback more frequently than the Giants did and will expect him to contribute on early downs.
The issue with the New England comparison is that Bill Belichick really doesn't value players at this position all that much. He usually trades for veterans who haven't lived up to expectations in their old locations and either extends them for relatively cheap or lets them leave in free agency and uses the resulting compensatory pick to trade for the next guy. Recent Pats history is littered with players like Barkevious Mingo and Kyle Van Noy, and when New England developed Jamie Collins, they traded him away in lieu of handing him a new deal. It's possible Kennard could prove to be more than what we saw in New York, but the Lions are paying a lot for the privilege of finding out.
WR Paul Richardson, Washington
Injuries kept Richardson buried on Seattle's depth chart for the first three years of his rookie deal, but the departure of Jermaine Kearse and the broken leg suffered by Tyler Lockett helped push Richardson up the depth chart last season. He responded by delivering on the big-play potential we saw when Seattle took him in the second round of the 2014 draft, averaging 16 yards per catch while scoring six times on just 44 receptions.
The touchdown rate will regress toward the mean, though, and Richardson might very well be built to excel within the never-ending plays and scrambling of the Russell Wilson universe. Of his six touchdowns, four came after Wilson held onto the ball for four seconds or more. Nobody else in the league had more than two such touchdowns, and that was only true for four other receivers. Injuries are also a concern, given that Richardson's left knee has been through a torn MCL and two torn ACLs.
In a market in which teams seem desperate to overpay midtier wide receivers, though, Washington is giving the 25-year-old Richardson a five-year, $40 million deal with $20 million in guarantees. It's a remarkable leap and seems to be a bizarre fit for an offense with Alex Smith under center, given that even the 2017 version of Smith wasn't exactly chucking it downfield on a frequent basis. Washington's offense is littered with injury risks, and while players like Jordan Reed and Chris Thompson offer significant upside when healthy, it's not clear that's the case with Richardson.
TE Trey Burton, Bears
Last seen famously throwing a touchdown pass to Nick Foles, Burton has been too useful of a player to stick around as a secondary tight end behind Zach Ertz in Philadelphia. Ertz has missed four games over the past two years, and in those four games, Burton has produced 14 catches for 180 yards and four touchdowns. Burton is not going to score 16 touchdowns as a starter, and he's not the blocker Ertz is, but the 26-year-old's upside is as a legitimate No. 1 tight end up and down the field.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace made a pair of investments at tight end last year in signing blocking tight end Dion Sims and drafting freak athlete Adam Shaheen in the second round, so it's a bit of a surprise that he's making a third foray into the market, but Burton is a more complete player than either of those two. This is likely more of a referendum on Shaheen, given that Burton will probably occupy two-tight-end sets alongside Sims to start the season.
The four-year, $32 million deal Burton signed is hardly insignificant; he now holds the third-largest average annual salary for a tight end in the league behind Jordan Reed and Travis Kelce, each of whom had much more impressive campaigns before signing their deals. (With four years and $31.25 million left on his deal, it's perhaps notable that Ertz is in line to make less money than his former backup.)
If Burton hits that upside, he'll be worth the money he's getting as part of this contract, but a lot of teams pay for the best-case scenario in free agency and end up getting something significantly less. Unless the specific contract terms make this a friendlier deal for the Bears, this looks like a very aggressive deal from Pace.
QB Drew Brees, Saints
There was never any realistic likelihood of Brees leaving the Saints, given that the 39-year-old and his family have been settled in Louisiana for more than a decade, and he finally got some defensive help last season. The Saints' second-half leads and excellent defense allowed them to run the ball more frequently last season, taking some of the workload off Brees, who averaged fewer attempts per game than he has since 2005.
His rate statistics remained strong, including an NFL-record completion percentage of 72.0, but they masked some on-field slippage. From 2012 to '16, Brees' average pass traveled 7.8 yards in the air and resulted in 5.1 yards after the catch. In 2017, Brees threw much shorter passes, averaging 6.4 yards in the air, with those throws generating 6.2 yards after the catch.
Going back through 2005, the only starting quarterback to average more yards after the catch than air yards in a single season is Alex Smith, who did it in 2014 and 2015. Brees is probably closer to Smith than it might have seemed a few years ago, and while the Saints didn't need him to throw the ball downfield very frequently last season, it will be interesting to see what happens if the defense doesn't play as effectively as it did in 2017.
Brees should remain effective in 2018. It's also fair to say that there's significantly more risk in Brees' profile than there was even a year ago. But the two-year, $50 million deal the Saints gave Brees was a no-brainer, and given that Brees could have forced the Saints to eat up $18 million in dead cap space from his old deal by hitting free agency, he did his longtime club a favor.
G Andrew Norwell, Jaguars
We found what the Jags were saving money to add! If you're going to sign a free agent, it might as well be a 26-year-old coming off a first-team All-Pro appearance, as is the case with Norwell. The Panthers made the decision to retain guard Trai Turner before the season, and while they might have thought at the time about making a move to re-sign Norwell later on, the subsequent season he produced likely priced the Panthers out of retaining the Ohio State product.
In return, Norwell gets the biggest deal for an interior lineman in league history. His five-year, $66.5 million pact reportedly fully guarantees $30 million, which would be a hefty increase on the record set last offseason, when Kevin Zeitler got a five-year, $60 million deal with $23 million guaranteed from the Browns. It's a reflection on how good Norwell's 2017 campaign was, given that the Panthers tendered him at a second-round level last season as a restricted free agent and no team made a run at him.
It's interesting and probably fair to think about this as another move by the Jaguars to shift toward a run-first attack, given that Norwell is an absolute mauler on the ground. Norwell will slot right in for free agent Patrick Omameh at left guard and should be a considerable upgrade. The Jags have generally structured their free-agent deals with two years of significant money up front and flexibility after, so this is probably a two-year, $30 million deal with subsequent team options for Jacksonville. Big-ticket guards haven't always translated well to their new locations, but Norwell's a worthy risk for a team whose interior offensive line play on either side of Brandon Linder hasn't been very good.
WR Allen Robinson, Bears
We're two years removed from the monster season (1,400 yards, 14 touchdowns) of Robinson's career, when he single-handedly convinced people that Blake Bortles was a promising quarterback. As was the case with Bortles, though, it's fair to wonder whether Robinson benefited from spending much of that year in garbage time. Robinson racked up 556 yards and six touchdowns on drives that began with the Jags having no more than a 20 percent chance of winning; that yardage mark ranked third in the league behind DeAndre Hopkins and Jarvis Landry. The only other receiver with six touchdowns in those situations? Teammate Allen Hurns.
At the same time, though, Robinson was brilliant while playing with a quarterback who needed him to shoulder much of the workload. The talent is clearly there, and while Robinson struggled in 2016 before missing virtually all of 2017 with a torn ACL, I'd chalk up the subpar year to quarterback issues. The Penn State product saw his catch rate drop to 48.3 percent in 2016, but he was thrown 50 "deep" passes (throws 16-plus yards downfield). He caught just 24 percent of those throws despite dropping only one of them.
Receivers with a season like Robinson's 2015 campaign in their back pocket don't hit the market in their prime. The only guy in recent memory who produced a better season during his rookie deal before leaving in free agency was David Boston, who had significant off-field concerns (and subsequently bombed with the Chargers). Robinson doesn't appear to have similar issues. Alshon Jeffery left after one franchise tag, and Robinson's situation is complicated by the ACL tear, but it was a surprise the Jaguars didn't franchise their star wideout, let alone sign him to an extension.
Maybe the Jaguars know something we don't, and the Bears will regret their decision, but Robinson is one of the highest-upside players in free agency in recent memory. For a team that let Jeffery pursue new pastures and replaced him with the combo of Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright and Dontrelle Inman, Robinson is a legitimate No. 1 wideout as a simultaneous safety valve and deep target for Mitchell Trubisky.
Robinson's contract calls for him to make $42 million over three years, which is an excellent deal. He gets to make serious money coming off a lost season -- his $14 million average is just below the $14.5 million Davante Adams got from the Packers in December -- and he gets to hit free agency again at age 27, which could keep Robinson in line for two more upper-echelon contracts if he continues to play at a high level into his late-20s. With $25 million in guarantees, this is likely a two-year deal for the Bears before they have to worry about renegotiating or if Robinson flames out. This is a win-win.
WR Sammy Watkins, Chiefs
The problem in evaluating Watkins is that every analysis starts with the reference point of 2014, when the Bills used two first-round picks and passed on Odell Beckham Jr. to move up and grab Watkins at No. 4 overall. Since then, Watkins has only shown flashes of the guy whose ceiling seemed to be Julio Jones-esque at Clemson. In 2015, Watkins finished the year by generating 679 yards and six touchdowns over the final six weeks of the year, which seemed to portend superstardom to come.
In April 2016, though, Watkins suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot, which required surgery. The Bills rushed him back onto the field, but after Watkins limped through two games, he underwent a second surgery, went back on injured reserve and missed half the year. The Bills traded him to the Rams before the 2017 season, and it's fair to wonder whether concerns about the foot made the Rams wonder whether a long-term deal was in their best interests.
Watkins was an absolute terror in the red zone and little more during his lone season in Los Angeles. He was thrown the ball nine times in the red zone and came away with seven touchdowns, which was second among wideouts behind Jarvis Landry. Nobody else came close to that touchdown rate, and while Watkins has the size and talent to excel in the red zone, he needed 19 targets to score five red zone touchdowns during his time in Buffalo.
The Jones fracture is going to end up dictating Watkins' long-term success, and wideouts haven't always been able to get past their foot issues. Julian Edelman and Julio Jones were both able to recover from a broken foot and return to their previous level of play. On the flip side, though, Hakeem Nicks suffered a Jones fracture after a breakout season in 2011 and never really returned to that level of form; after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons at ages 22 and 23, Nicks was out of football by 27. Likewise, Dez Bryant hasn't looked the same since breaking his foot in 2015.
Watkins' chances of turning back into the guy who looked like a budding superstar at the end of 2015 will depend on that foot, and while the upside is still theoretically there, he comes with an enormous amount of risk. Teams employ doctors and have players take physicals for a reason, but the Chiefs are making an enormous bet by giving Watkins more money than Robinson, who has a less terrifying injury history and has been more productive than Watkins on a game-by-game basis. The Chiefs needed some help at wide receiver alongside Tyreek Hill, but with initial reports suggesting this is a three-year, $48 million deal with $30 million guaranteed, this seems like a team betting that their scouting report from four years ago was more accurate than what they've seen since.
WR Albert Wilson, Dolphins
Wilson's final game as a member of the Chiefs was comfortably his best as a pro. The 25-year-old averaged just 26 receiving yards per game before Week 17 of the 2017 season, but with Patrick Mahomes under center and both Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce on the sidelines, Wilson went off for 10 catches and 147 yards against the Broncos. It was the first time Wilson had produced a 100-yard game since his final season at Georgia State back in 2013.
Before that game, though, Wilson had struggled to emerge as the second wideout the Chiefs have sought behind Jeremy Maclin and then Hill. Take out screens, and there have been 108 wideouts who have been targeted 100 or more times since the start of 2014, when Wilson entered the lineup. Of those 108, Wilson is 101st in targets per routes run, 94th in receptions per routes run, and 98th in receiving yards per route run. Wilson has also dropped 4.6 percent of the passes thrown in his direction, worse than the league average of 3.6 percent over that timeframe.
The rosiest scenario for Wilson was that some team would see him as this year's Robert Woods, a wideout with solid blocking skills whose talents would play up in a better offense. Come on down, Miami Dolphins! Miami was already $3 million over the salary cap after trading Landry, but as part of the Dolphins' move to fix the team culture, they're going to cut Ndamukong Suh and use some of the savings to lock up Wilson on a three-year, $24 million deal that truly seems beyond any possible expectations of what Wilson might have been offered elsewhere.
Teams obviously can have positive or negative cultures, but I'm skeptical the Dolphins are going to turn it around by spending $8 million per year on a decent third wideout. Remember that Miami spent big last year in free agency to bring back their core and add players like Julius Thomas and Lawrence Timmons to fill out the weak spots in a playoff team. Virtually all of those moves were disasters. They traded Jay Ajayi in midseason under the pretense of fixing their team culture and subsequently went 2-7 while Ajayi went on to win the Super Bowl with the Eagles.
If you want to improve the team's culture, go nuts. There are plenty of veterans with impeccable practice habits and the will to win who would have helped improve things in Miami. Most of them don't cost $8 million per year. It also would have been nice to improve the team's culture by adding an offensive lineman, given that the Dolphins already have Kenny Stills and 2015 first-round pick DeVante Parker at wideout and desperately need to fix their line.
Monday, March 12
Trade: Bills deal LT Cordy Glenn to Bengals
Grade for Bills: B+
Grade for Bengals: B
Buffalo general manager Brandon Beane refuses to stop in his attempt to hoard as many draft picks as possible, presumably to trade up for a new quarterback. Now he might not need to make a deal at all. By unloading a player he didn't want in Glenn and swapping a fifth-round pick for one in the sixth, Beane was able to move his top draft pick up from the 21st selection to the 12th pick.
The quarterback Beane wants might still be on the board at 12. He also can hold on to a fair amount of his pick haul; if Beane wants to move up for the third pick, as an example, the Jimmy Johnson chart says the Bills would only need to deal their two first-round picks and the third-rounder they just got from the Browns.
At the same time, it's fair to wonder whether the Bills should have been this aggressive to move on from an above-average left tackle in the prime of his career. Glenn's extension was massive at the time, but the Bengals are acquiring Glenn with three years and $30 million left on his deal. That's not an awful contract by any means, and while the Bills were impressed with rookie Dion Dawkins last season, Buffalo could have kept Glenn on the left side and installed Dawkins as an upgrade over Jordan Mills at right tackle. Their new quarterback might have appreciated having Glenn around.
As for the Bengals, their offense was sunk by a dismal offensive line last season. The move to push overmatched right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi to the left side as a replacement for Andrew Whitworth was disastrous, and they couldn't run behind that line in 2018. Glenn should be a massive upgrade at a major position of need.
By the Johnson chart, the draft picks cancel out to essentially value Glenn as worth the 51st overall pick in the draft, a pick in the middle of the second round. In making this move, though, the Bengals are essentially saying they don't trust their ability to develop a left tackle, given that they could easily have drafted a tackle at 12 themselves. After last year, it would be difficult to disagree with them.
TE Cameron Brate, Buccaneers
When Tampa Bay drafted O.J. Howard with the 19th selection in last year's draft, it seemed likely that the Bucs would be moving on from their incumbent tight end, given that Brate was due to become a restricted free agent after the 2017 season. Instead, after Brate's 591-yard, six-touchdown season, the Buccaneers made a major investment and signed him to a six-year, $41 million extension with $18 million guaranteed.
The Bucs have plenty of cap room, and their deals are almost always two-year contracts with what amounts to team options tacked on, but it's hard to believe they'll use Brate frequently enough to justify this sort of outlay. The Harvard product finished his first full season in 2017 and still played only about 55 percent of Tampa Bay's snaps in 2017. The Bucs will point to his success in the red zone with Jameis Winston under center, but red zone performance is wildly inconsistent from year to year.
We're still waiting to see the exact structure of this deal, but it's entirely possible we're looking at a top-five tight end contract over two and three years for a player who might not even be the best tight end on his own roster. This feels a lot like Tampa Bay paying for the player it wants Brate to be as opposed to a realistic evaluation of his play.
WR Mike Evans, Buccaneers
It's hard to find much fault, on the other hand, with the contract Tampa Bay handed its star wide receiver. Evans was entering the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, and the obvious reference point for a contract was the five-year, $81 million extension DeAndre Hopkins picked up in August before playing out his own fifth-year option.
The difference between the two was their draft position. Hopkins was drafted with the 27th pick, making his fifth-year option a relatively team-friendly $7.9 million. As a top-10 pick, Evans was entitled to a far bigger fifth-year option, as the Bucs were on the hook for $13.3 million before signing him to an extension.
With that in mind, it's a surprise that Evans was able to make only a modest leap over the maximum value of Hopkins' deal, with his contract coming in at five years and $82.5 million. The trade-off is in the money early in the deal. Spotrac reports that Evans will make $54 million over the first three years of the deal, which would be the most of any wideout in history. Hopkins' new pact came in at $49 million over three years.
The difference between the three-year money and the difference between those fifth-year options is essentially identical, but even so, it's a surprise that Evans and his representation weren't able to get more given the 6.1 percent rise in the salary cap over last season. There's every reason to think the 24-year-old will continue to rank among the league's top wideouts, and while he just became the highest-paid wide receiver in football by the three-year money, the Buccaneers appear to have gotten off pretty easily with this extension.
Saturday, March 10
CB Richard Sherman, 49ers
The recent track record of superstar cornerbacks leaving their old homes for new digs is mixed, at best. Nnamdi Asomugha went from being a true side eraser for the Raiders to being borderline unplayable for the Eagles at age 31. Darrelle Revis was a major disappointment after leaving the Jets for the Buccaneers; and while Revis produced an above-average season in winning a Super Bowl with the Patriots, age caught up to him during the second year of his second run with Gang Green. Revis was essentially finished at 31. Things went better for Aqib Talib in Denver, but after Talib's age-31 season, the Broncos decided they were better off going with Bradley Roby and shipped Talib off to the Rams.
Sherman will turn 30 later this month and will be coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in November, so the odds are against him returning to his perennial All-Pro form for a significant length of time. The good news is that he landed in a welcoming location with the 49ers. The Seahawks were more diverse in their coverages than some might suggest, but Sherman's size, instincts and spatial awareness made him a perfect fit for the Cover-3 that Seattle ran as its base coverage. Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was an assistant with the Seahawks and Jaguars under Gus Bradley, so he should have no difficulty finding a familiar spot for Sherman along the sidelines.
The future Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate was able to sign a three-year, $39.2 million deal one day after being released by the Seahawks, who didn't want to pay him an $11 million base salary in 2018. The contract, according to reports, is really a one-year, $9 million deal with incentives. If Sherman makes the Pro Bowl in 2018, the Niners will pay him $3 million and trigger $16 million in guarantees over the next two seasons. General manager John Lynch & Co. would be assuming some risk by paying Sherman through his age-32 campaign, but the structure of the deal allows the Niners to stay out of danger if Sherman doesn't return to form. It's a fair deal for both sides, and that first Seahawks-49ers game can't get here soon enough.
Trade: Browns deal DT Danny Shelton to Patriots
Another former University of Washington star defender goes on the move this offseason, but unlike Marcus Peters, Shelton hadn't quite hit the heights his prior team had hoped. Cleveland's 2015 first-round pick was drafted with the idea of being a nose tackle in Mike Pettine's 3-4 alignment. But after spending two years in that 3-4 under Pettine and replacement Ray Horton, the Browns moved to a 4-3 under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams last season.
Shelton is never going to rack up big stats, but he was an effective piece in a Browns run defense that quietly finished fourth against the run in DVOA in 2017. Splitting out individual pieces of a run defense is nearly impossible, but during Shelton's career in Cleveland, the Browns were far stouter with him on the field. Cleveland allowed 3.9 yards per carry and 20.6 percent of rushes to turn into a first down or a touchdown with Shelton on the field. With the former 12th overall pick off the field, the Browns allowed 4.7 yards per rush and a conversion 26.2 percent of the time.
The 24-year-old Shelton should slot in as a replacement for the departing Alan Branch up front for the Patriots. New England was 30th in the league against the run, and while Branch had been impressive in previous seasons, he had fallen so far out of favor that the Pats scratched him for Super Bowl LII in favor of keeping Malcolm Butler inexplicably active. New England will probably decline Shelton's fifth-year option, given that run-stuffing defensive linemen just aren't making eight-figure salaries often in free agency; but it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Pats offer Shelton a contract extension if he starts his career in Foxborough well.
The return isn't much for the Browns. Cleveland sends a fifth-round pick in this year's draft to the Patriots, although it's unclear whether it'll be the pick the Browns acquired from the Packers on Friday or the fifth-rounder the Browns picked up from the Chiefs for another former first-round pick, Cam Erving. In return, Cleveland will get a 2019 third-rounder, but given the Patriots' nearly unprecedented run of success, it seems extremely likely that pick will fall into the 90s next year.
Friday, March 9
Trade: Packers deal CB Damarious Randall to Browns for QB DeShone Kizer
Grade for Packers: C+
Grade for Browns: B+
Kizer needed a change of scenery after his disastrous rookie season, and Browns general manager John Dorsey might have found a new free safety by trading for a struggling cornerback in Randall. Read the full analysis here.
Trade: Bills deal QB Tyrod Taylor to Browns
Grade for Bills: B+
Grade for Browns: B-
Trade: Dolphins deal QR Jarvis Landry to Browns
Grade for Dolphins: B-
Grade for Browns: C+
Trade: Eagles deal WR Torrey Smith to Panthers for CB Daryl Worley
Grade for Eagles: A-
Grade for Panthers: C
It's difficult to believe that the Panthers sent an actual asset to the Eagles for Smith, given that Philadelphia was virtually guaranteed to decline the former Ravens star's $5 million option for 2018. Smith's impact was underrated by his final numbers (36 catches for 420 yards and two touchdowns) -- he got open downfield far more frequently than it seemed, but was let down by some subpar deep throws by Carson Wentz and Nick Foles. Smith also chipped in with a few drops, which didn't help matters.
The Panthers needed wideout help alongside Devin Funchess, but it's hard to figure that they were really bidding against other teams who wanted to assume Smith's contact for 2018 and trade an asset in the process. Smith probably would have struggled to get the two years and $10 million left on his deal as a free agent.
In lieu of possibly netting a compensatory pick for Smith, the Eagles instead take home another cheap cornerback in Worley, who started 25 games over his two seasons in Carolina. Worley hasn't developed as much as fellow 2016 draftee James Bradberry and fell into a rotation at times with Kevon Seymour, who should now have a clear path to a starting role. The Eagles want to spend money at just about every position besides running back and cornerback, and Worley gives them another low-cost option as they try to replace Patrick Robinson, who will likely leave in free agency this offseason.
Thursday, March 8
Trade: Broncos deal CB Aqib Talib to the Rams
Grade for Broncos: B
Grade for Rams: B-
The Rams appeared to enter the offseason with serious question marks at cornerback, but in a matter of two weeks, they've pieced together what might be the best cornerback duo in football. After trading for Marcus Peters, the Rams added another playmaking veteran on the outside by dealing a fifth-round pick to the Broncos for Talib, whose departure from Denver had been rumored since the end of the regular season.
Denver had clearly made the decision to promote fifth-year corner Bradley Roby into an every-down role at the expense of Talib, who failed to pick off more than one pass for the first time in his professional career last season. Given that decision, John Elway did well to create a market and pick up a fifth-round pick for a player the Broncos seemed likely to release. With Roby and Chris Harris Jr., the Broncos should still be set at cornerback for years to come, and Denver can put the $11 million they owed Talib toward a new deal for Roby and/or their bid for Kirk Cousins.
Wade Phillips must be excited to reunite with his former star pupil. There are certainly signs of decline from Talib, who had a particularly rough game against Alshon Jeffery when the Broncos played the Eagles last season, but he's still an above-average cornerback as he enters his age-32 campaign. That lone pick was a Dak Prescott throw he took 103 yards back to the house, so the wheels are still there.
At two years and $19 million, the Rams aren't paying an exorbitant amount for Talib at his current level of play, since the going rate for solid 1A cornerbacks in free agency these days is $10 million per season. If Les Snead restructures Talib's deal and adds guaranteed money after this season, I would be a little concerned, but this is a logical acquisition for the Rams. Throw in the low-cost addition of cornerback Sam Shields, who sat out in 2017 as he recovered from a concussion, and the Rams probably have the best set of corners in the game.
Watching the Los Angeles defense is going to be fun next year. Peters and Talib are absolute ball hawks who fool quarterbacks into throws they regret from the moment the ball leaves their hand, but they also take risks and get beat by double-moves more than most cornerbacks of their ilk. It will be on franchised free safety Lamarcus Joyner to clean up when his cornerbacks get beat, and on the Aaron Donald-led pass rush to get home quickly and allow L.A.'s two star cornerbacks to break on the football.
Wednesday, March 7
DL Chris Baker, Bengals
Last year went disastrously for Baker, who left Washington to sign a three-year, $15.8 million deal with Tampa Bay. Baker got $6 million guaranteed but did little during his season in Tampa, racking up just a half-sack, five quarterback knockdowns and two tackles for loss across 437 defensive snaps. Baker didn't win the locker room over, either, with teammates having to stop quarterback Jameis Winston from getting in Baker's face after a critical encroachment penalty on fourth down late against the Panthers.
The Bengals have a long history of taking on reclamation projects with some success under Marvin Lewis, and at one year, $3 million, Baker doesn't come with much risk. The 30-year-old is down to 300 pounds, a noticeable drop given that he was listed at 320 and likely played at a larger weight last season. The Hampton product racked up 9.5 sacks and 27 knockdowns between 2015 and 2016, so if Lewis can turn Baker back into a useful interior pass-rusher, the Bengals will have a steal on their hands.
Trade: Rams deal LB Alec Ogletree to Giants
Grade for Rams: C+
Grade for Giants: C
The Giants were loath to spend money on coverage linebackers under the reign of general manager Jerry Reese, who never adequately replaced Antonio Pierce in the middle of the field after the playoff hero finished his career in 2009. Draft picks like Jonathan Goff and a bevy of free agents -- everyone from Jon Beason to J.T. Thomas -- couldn't stay healthy or play effective football. With new GM Dave Gettleman coming over from a Panthers organization that built its defense around Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, it's no surprise that he might want to address inside linebacker this offseason.
Of the candidates the Giants have brought in since Pierce, Ogletree is certainly the most likely to succeed, but it's hard to argue that the former Georgia star is likely to return value. The 26-year-old is a stud athlete, but he hasn't been able to turn those measurables into significant production since 2014. Ogletree forced 10 fumbles over his first two seasons, but he has been responsible for only two strips in the three years since. He made tackles on 16.1 percent of Los Angeles' run plays last season, a rate that ranked 60th in the league among players with 200 run snaps or more.
The problem is that Ogletree plays a position the league really doesn't seem to value with significant contracts. The Rams signed Ogletree to a four-year, $42.8 million extension last October, and the Giants will essentially have Ogletree on a four-year, $38 million deal with $10 million guaranteed, all coming this season. That's not in line with what better players have gotten in free agency; Dont'a Hightower, for one, got four years and $35.5 million to stay with the Patriots last offseason. Useful players such as Zach Brown, who is back in the market this year, had to settle for a one-year pact. It's difficult to believe Ogletree would have received this much if he were a free agent.
The Rams free up cap space as part of this deal, which marks the second expensive defender they've dealt away in a week after trading Robert Quinn to the Dolphins. It now seems more likely that they'll hang on to fellow linebacker Mark Barron, who seemed like a plausible cap casualty. L.A. will have $6.5 million in dead money on its cap for Ogletree this year, but with $47.3 million in space, the Rams can use the savings to bring back receiver Sammy Watkins, who would otherwise be an unrestricted free agent. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has helped develop unheralded inside linebackers such as Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall in years past, so the Rams might be able to get by without big-money players on the interior.
Gettleman gives up fourth- and sixth-round picks to the Rams, who send a 2019 seventh-rounder back as part of the deal. The Giants managed to avoid sending the 102nd pick and instead sent their later fourth-rounder, the 135th selection, but they're not in a position to trade away draft picks given how bereft the back of their roster is at the moment. This is a better swap for the Rams.
Trade: Seahawks deal DE Michael Bennett to Eagles
Grade for Seahawks: C
Grade for Eagles: B+
The Eagles are one of the most aggressive trading teams in the league and built their Super Bowl success around a deep, dominant defensive line, so it's no surprise that they acquired Michael Bennett from the Seahawks today. Bennett will slot in as a replacement for Vinny Curry, and with three years and $22.1 million left on his deal, Bennett won't break the bank as part of one of the league's best defensive lines. It seems pretty clear that Seattle wanted to move on from Bennett, who might be the first part of a painful defensive rebuild over the days to come. The Seahawks would likely have cut Bennett, given that the return -- a fifth-round pick and flyer WR Marcus Johnson, with a seventh-rounder going back to Philadelphia -- won't move the needle.
Tuesday, March 6
RB Chris Ivory, Bills
Chris Ivory has been one of the worst running backs in football over the last two years, averaging 3.6 yards per carry while producing more fumbles (seven) than touchdowns (five). It's no surprise he was cut by the Jaguars, but it's more difficult to see why the Bills prioritized him on a two-year, $5.5-million deal when backs of his ilk are free to acquire in the market. Remember that LeGarrette Blount, a more effective power back, languished in free agency for months after an 18-touchdown season before settling for a one-year, $1.3-million deal with the Eagles last offseason. The Bills just guaranteed Ivory $3.3 million, which seems inexplicable for a team which already has the league's most expensive running back in LeSean McCoy.
Friday, March 3
Trade: Rams deal DE Robert Quinn to Dolphins
Grade for Rams: C+
Grade for Dolphins: C+
The Rams decision to trade Robert Quinn is a reflection on what the 27-year-old has looked like since undergoing back surgery in January of 2016. Quinn has just 12.5 sacks and 18 knockdowns over the past two years. That would be an upgrade for the Dolphins, who foolishly gave Andre Branch a three-year deal last offseason with $8 million fully guaranteed for 2018 to play across from Cameron Wake. Quinn will be a massive upgrade at defensive end on Branch, but the Dolphins will likely need to perform cap gymnastics to either fit Quinn in on his current cap hit of $11.4 million or as part of a new contract. It seems likely that Quinn could serve as a replacement for Ndamukong Suh, whose departure would free up $17 million in cap room for a Dolphins team which is nearly $16 million over the salary cap at the moment.
Monday, Feb. 26
CB Vontae Davis, Bills
The one-year, $5-million deal the Bills inked with Vontae Davis is a good short-term risk for a team who probably would have had to pay more to bring back the oft-injured E.J. Gaines next season. Davis slipped badly in 2016 and was impacted by injuries in 2017, but the former Colts standout won't turn 30 until May and was a legitimate number-one cornerback up to that point. In a free-agent pool where mid-market starting corners are likely to approach $10 million per season with two years of guaranteed money, getting Davis on a short-term pact for half that is a win for Bills general manager Brandon Beane.
Friday, Feb. 23
Trade: Chiefs deal CB Marcus Peters to Rams
Grade for Chiefs: C
Grade for Rams: B+
Grades for the Marcus Peters trade: The Chiefs get a C for their end of the swap, in which they sent Peters and the 196th pick to the Rams for the 124th selection and a 2019 second-rounder. If the Rams finish 20th in the draft order next year and we don't depreciate the pick's value for time (both of which are perhaps conservative estimates), the Chase Stuart suggests the Chiefs picked up the 33rd selection in a typical draft for a 25-year-old former All-Pro cornerback on a below-market deal for the next two seasons. While Kansas City clearly wanted to trade Peters, this is a price point at which the Chiefs probably needed to trust their ability to rehabilitate Peters and bring him back into the fold. The Rams, meanwhile, get a B+ for their end of the bargain. They probably need to start holding onto their draft picks after sending high selections out in the trades for Peters, Jared Goff, and Sammy Watkins, but they're not incurring an enormous amount of risk in trading for Peters. They can go year-to-year and pay the Washington product just $27.5 million over the next three seasons, which is less than inferior cornerbacks like Dre Kirkpatrick and Logan Ryan got in their free-agent deals last offseason.
Tuesday, Jan. 30
Trade: Chiefs deal QB Alex Smith to Washington
Grade for Chiefs: B
Grade for Washington: B
Plenty of people figured the Chiefs were going to trade Alex Smith this offseason to free up their starting job for 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes. They were half-right. The Chiefs didn't wait until the offseason to make their move, agreeing to a deal to trade Smith to Washington for a third-round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller.
Washington's stunning trade for a new quarterback should reverberate around the league; a half-dozen teams that weren't involved with the deal suddenly saw their offseason plans change or come into focus. The deal (and Smith's subsequent extension) obviously suggest Washington will be moving on from incumbent quarterback Kirk Cousins, who will hit unrestricted free agency.