Arguably the most exciting part of the NFL offseason officially began last Thursday on March 9th. Free agency opened up with a bang. The first wave of free agents served as a message for the both the status of the league and where depth lies in the draft.
In terms of big money contracts, there were winners all along the offensive line. If a team had a 300-pound hole to fill, the front office proved more than willing to shell out a pricy, multi-year deal in order to plug it. The quarterback market is so fickle that relative unknowns with inconsistent tape – we are looking at you Mike Glennon – could capture massive deals. Conversely, veteran running backs need not apply. Eddie Lacy is the only major runner at the time of this writing to sign a hefty offer. The draft offers tremendous depth at the running back position, which leaves the market exceptionally soft.
Many of the more buzz worthy acquisitions occurred through trade. The players involved were not free agents, but it’s worth mentioning. Much to the chagrin of other NFL fans, the Patriots have decided to send Brady out with a bang. New England shipped a first and a third rounder to New Orleans for wide receiver Brandin Cooks and a fourth. Cleveland essentially purchased more draft picks from Houston by taking Brock Osweiler off their hands. The Browns then delivered the ultimate burn. They want no part of Brock Lobster. If unable to entice other organizations into a trade, the team plans to release him.
Lesser waves of free agency continue. The true ramifications will not become clear for at least a year, but it’s always entertaining to play GM behind the safety of a computer screen. Read on for a surely infallible guide to the 2017 free agents and how key players will fare.
15 Pay Off: Alshon Jeffery (WR Eagles)
In a November night game against the Packers last season, Philadelphia appeared close to pulling potential wide receivers out of the stands. Nelson Agholor had taken the night off to get his head straight. Jordan Matthews went down with an ankle injury. The Eagles already weak wide receiving corps found itself whittled down to the likes of Paul Turner and Bryce Treggs, who had previously combined for three games of NFL experience. The struggle at wideout, highlighted on Monday Night Football, was a microcosm for Philadelphia’s season. It clearly lit a fire under the front office. They landed Alshon Jeffery on a one-year, incentive-based $14 million contract. He’s betting on himself while the Eagles are betting on Carson Wentz. Coupled with the cheap signing of Torrey Smith, Philadelphia has transformed its offense and surrounded the second year quarterback with talent. Soft tissue ailments have plagued Jeffery throughout his career. If the injury bug bites again, so what? Philadelphia moves on after the season. If not, Alshon Jeffery has the youth and enviable skill set to revolutionize the team’s passing game. Defenses in the NFC East should be on notice.
14 Flop: Matt Kalil (LT Panthers)
The Vikings letting an offensive lineman hit free agency is a damning condemnation. To say Minnesota’s line was abysmal in 2016 is being kind. The team needs all the help it can get, but the front office let Matt Kalil walk anyway. It makes little sense, then, that the Carolina Panthers swooped in and offered the lineman $55 million with $24 million in guarantees. Kalil, a five-year pro, struggled with glaring inconsistencies after a promising start to his career. He missed all but two games with a torn hip labrum last season. Apart from a Pro Bowl rookie campaign, Kalil has shown nothing to suggest he will be an upgrade over Michael Oher. Carolina largely whiffed on Oher as well, but it only cost them $7 million over two years. The Panthers are paying an exorbitant amount for a player who hasn’t performed since 2012.
13 Pay Off: Tony Jefferson (SS Ravens)
This isn’t the smartest or most frugal signing of the offseason. The contract pays Tony Jefferson $36 million over four years, $19 million of which is guaranteed. Baltimore has missed the playoffs three out of the last four years after notching five consecutive trips to the postseason and a Super Bowl victory in 2012. A team with many other holes to fill now has much less money to do so. With that disclaimer out of the way, Jefferson’s acquisition is one of the most exciting free agent moves on the defensive side of the ball. Pro Football Focus ranked Jefferson 84th in its Top 101 Players for the 2016 Season. He was the sixth safety listed. Eric Weddle, number ten overall and the second safety included, will partner with Jefferson in Baltimore for a secondary tandem made in heaven. Jefferson’s ability to stalk the box and stop the run allows Weddle to roam centerfield. Regardless of the price tag, Jefferson should be a mainstay in Baltimore for years.
12 Flop: Malcolm Smith (LB 49ers)
When Malcolm Smith couldn’t crack the starting lineup after winning a Super Bowl MVP with Seattle, there was a reason. Seattle had the deepest defense in the league. When Smith saw middling success during a two-year stint with the Oakland Raiders, a new explanation arose. Malcolm Smith languishes against the pass. The tackle machine (122 combined in 2015 and 103 in 2016) stacks up well against the run, but he’s a liability on passing downs due to his subpar skill in both coverage and pass rushing. Such one-dimensionality does not warrant a five-year, $24.5 million contract with $13 million guaranteed. San Francisco appears to be content with mediocrity by signing forgettable players and raiding the Bears QB depth chart – both Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley joined the franchise as well.
11 Pay Off: Brandon Marshall (WR Giants)
The New York Giants certainly love to play with fire. No, I’m not talking about Jason Pierre-Paul. Combining the always-incendiary Brandon Marshall with tirade extraordinaire, Odell Beckham, puts the Giants at high risk for complete and utter destruction. It could go either way. The range of possibilities makes for fascinating entertainment. Luckily, the arc of Marshall’s history bends toward success. Marshall has made a habit of putting together a stellar first year with new teams. Here are his combined stats for his inaugural seasons as a Dolphin, Bear and Jet: 313 catches, 4,024 yards and 28 touchdowns. The locker room issues and wearing out his welcome comes later. The Giants covered their bases here too. The two-year, $11 million deal has no guarantees attached to the second season. New York can cut bait if necessary. Although Marshall will soon turn 33, and 2016 suggests his best days are behind him, his size and hands create a dangerous red zone threat at the very least. Beckham will also be granted more open space to do what he does best.
10 Flop: Dre Kirkpatrick (CB Bengals)
The Bengals had to stop the bleeding. Andy Dalton missed the playoffs for the first time in his career last year. Injuries played a role, but losing vital pieces during the previous free agency period also hampered the team. After Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler signed elsewhere, Cincinnati sprung to action to avoid a repeat performance. Their efforts helped retain both Dre Kirkpatrick and wide receiver Brandon LaFell. The Bengals are thin at cornerback due to slowly developing young players and Adam Jones’ off-the-field issues, but it’s hard to imagine Kirkpatrick’s benefits outweigh the loss of two key linemen – especially given the price. His contract awards him $52 million over five years. Pro Football Focus is not the end all be all, but the site values Kirkpatrick at less than half of that. He certainly has the skills to perform at an average level, but that places him far below the expectations of his pay.
9 Pay Off: Ricky Wagner (RT Lions)
This “pay off” really shines due to the two signings. The Lions ranked in the bottom half of the league in adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate in 2016. Detroit looked to improve on that by signing Ricky Wagner to a five-year, $47.5 million contract. At 27, Wagner was the second ranked right tackle of the 2017 free agent class. The team also snagged right guard TJ Lang from their NFC North rival, the Green Bay Packers. The acquisitions dramatically improve the right side of their offensive line. It’s a sizeable investment, but the move protects their most valuable asset – Matthew Stafford. The expensive duo provides Detroit with its best line in years. Stafford can look forward to more time in the pocket and larger holes in the running game. Although Lang has been the better player, he’s nearing 30 and underwent offseason hip surgery. Wagner will have the bigger impact for a longer amount of time.
8 Flop: Kenny Britt (WR Browns)
The Browns have money to burn, and they’ll end up doing just that on Kenny Britt. Cleveland signed Britt, who had his first 1,000-yard season in 2016, to a four-year contract. He’s set to earn $32.5 million with $10.5 million fully guaranteed. An additional $6.5 million will become guaranteed if he remains on the roster through 2018. The 28-year-old receiver likely will, but it is difficult to see how this move positively affects either party. Kenny Britt has been consistently inconsistent throughout his career. He certainly doesn’t possess the same ceiling as Terrelle Pryor, who reportedly turned down a similar deal from Cleveland to join Kirk Cousins in Washington. Meanwhile, there’s little incentive for Britt to join the Browns. His 2016 statistics (68 catches, 1,002 yards and 5 TDs) are impressive considering the quarterbacks on the Rams’ roster, but it’s not something he’s unaccustomed to. Britt’s best quarterback in his eight-year career is likely Matt Hasselbeck past his prime. Why continue that suffering? Britt is chasing money, which is his prerogative, but he’ll chase it into obscurity.
7 Pay Off: Jabaal Sheard (DL Colts)
The Indianapolis Colts have the luxury of playing in the NFL’s weakest division. They’ve moved a step closer to retaking the AFC South by improving their defense with solid, manageable contracts. Jabaal Sheard contributed enough as a role player in New England to earn a starting job elsewhere. The Colts have given him that opportunity with a three-year, $25.5 million contract. In roughly 100 more pass rushes from 2015-2016, Sheard has 1.5 less sacks (13) and two more knockdowns (22) than Nick Perry. Perry signed for more than double Sheard’s total. Indianapolis also robbed the Houston Texans of their former OLB, John Simon. Through another frugal signing ($13.5 million over three years), the Colts weakened a rival and added two players that can grow within their system.
6 Flop: Nick Perry (LB Packers)
Speaking of Nick Perry, the Packers are overpaying for his services. The former first round pick has put together one breakout campaign and four underperforming seasons since joining Green Bay. It just so happens that his breakout occurred during a contract year. The lack of edge rushers available during this year’s free agency forced Green Bay’s hand even more so than Perry’s performance. They locked him down with a five-year, $60 million contract ($18.5 million guaranteed). Perry had 11 sacks and 16 knockdowns in 2016. He managed only 12.5 sacks in his previous four seasons. The franchise is paying Perry to continue his ascension. Whether due to injury history or less hunger thanks to a fat contract, Perry could just as likely recede. The money seems gargantuan at first glance, but the deal is technically team friendly. Built-in roster bonuses and non-guaranteed money gives Green Bay year-to-year options if Perry returns to his old ways.
5 Pay Off: Julius Peppers (DE Panthers)
This is a sentimental pick. After four years in Chicago and three in Green Bay, Julius Peppers will return to the organization that drafted him. He currently sits fifth overall in all-time sacks. He came on strong at the end of the year and finished with 7.5 sacks for Green Bay in 2016, even as a situational pass rusher. The 37-year-old Peppers figures to play a similar role in Carolina’s defensive rotation. Although he will not necessarily strike fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks like he used to, Peppers does not see the return as the beginning of a farewell tour. He plans to produce. His contract matches the motivation. Peppers is set to make $3.5 million on a one-year deal, but could gain nearly $1 million more through sack bonuses. There are few ways the Panthers’ short commitment to a franchise great could go wrong. It’s good for the fans, good for the team and good for football.
4 Flop: A.J. Bouye (CB Jaguars)
A.J. Bouye rose from obscurity to become one of the best corners in the NFL last year. The feel good story netted Bouye a five-year, $67.5 million deal with $26 million guaranteed. If the new contract was with a team other than the Jacksonville Jaguars, Bouye might be expected to thrive. He can obviously still succeed, but it wouldn’t fit the script. Jacksonville has routinely attempted (and failed) to win the Super Bowl in March. Perhaps the strategy will go differently with Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone at the helm. It’s easy to see what they are doing at face value. A Jalen Ramsey-AJ Bouye tandem potentially renders passing on the Jags an impossible feat for years to come. The problem is that Bouye has only performed at a high level for one year. The Jaguars, a team that excels at mismanaging huge contracts, has orchestrated yet another monumental signing based on an anomaly. You can only go all-in without the cards so many times. For the fans’ sake, hopefully Jacksonville finally hits on the river.
3 Pay Off: DeSean Jackson (WR Buccaneers)
DeSean Jackson is a one-trick pony. The trick just happens to be incredibly lucrative. For three years and $35 million, Jackson’s speed and deep ball ability adds a new dimension to the Tampa Bay offense. The naysayers point to Jackson’s age. His speed will soon diminish at age 30. After it’s gone, Jackson’s productivity will fall off a cliff. Those detractors seem to forget Tampa Bay’s situation. Vincent Jackson is 34 and coming off two straight injury-plagued seasons. The team’s best receiving options behind the monstrous Mike Evans last year were Adam Humphries and Cameron Brate. This signing immediately upgrades their offense for as long as Jackson’s legs will carry him. It spreads the field for Mike Evans. Jameis Winston, who completed just over one-third of his throws 20 or more yards downfield in 2016, should almost certainly see that number rise. The Bucs fell short of a playoff run last year. Their division birthed the NFC’s last two Super Bowl representatives. Whatever your opinion of Desean Jackson, this move is exactly what Tampa Bay needed.
2 Flop: Mike Glennon (QB Bears)
The Bears finally rid themselves of Jay Cutler! They’re done paying mega millions for disappointing quarterback play. What’s that? The Bears signed Mike Glennon to a three-year, $45 million contract? They complemented that move by guaranteeing Markus Wheaton and his 107 career receptions more money than Brandon Marshall or Torrey Smith? Nevermind. Glennon has not played extensively since 2014. When he did take the field, the product was serviceable but inconsistent. Chicago sees a diamond in the rough and is willing to pay for it. They’re unlikely to see a return on investment, especially if their best strategy is to replace Alshon Jeffery with a player like Wheaton. In all fairness, the Bears can essentially back out with no harm done after one year. The flexibility already makes it better than the Texans’ Osweiler deal, but that’s not an impressive bar to surpass. Chicago has purchased an expensive, average placeholder in hopes that he blossoms. The organization would have been better off retaining Brian Hoyer more cheaply for a similar role. He’s proven to be a solid regular season quarterback. The Bears won’t sniff the playoffs, so it’s all they’d really need until another opportunity knocks.
1 Pay Off: Martellus Bennett (TE Packers)
Jared Cook, an instant hero in Lambeau after his toe-tapping postseason catch, broke off contract talks. Cheeseheads took to the Internet to berate the notoriously cheap Ted Thompson. Seemingly seconds later, the Packers had signed Martellus Bennett to a three-year, $20.5 million contract with $6.3 million guaranteed. All was forgiven. Bennett’s speed and athleticism do not measure up to Cook, but the recent Super Bowl champion has surer hands and tremendous blocking ability. He provides Rodgers with an excellent receiving option while contributing to the team’s capacity for the run, an eyesore in Green Bay’s offense last year. The deal becomes sweeter compared to other tight end contracts. Both Dion Sims and Jack Doyle received more guaranteed money. The Packers bolstered a position of need without breaking the bank. A year removed from playing through an ankle injury, Bennett should flourish with Rodgers.