NFL free agency’s best bargains: Eight underrated deals
Parting is such sweet sorrow, and that’s especially true for teams that fail to retain their players in the shopping spree of free agency only to see that talent go elsewhere and sign entirely manageable contracts. Other teams are smart enough to not only keep their own but do so in a team-friendly fashion. Here are eight players whose new deals are just as beneficial for their teams as for the players—especially when you consider that all eight players should be first-day difference-makers.
Mitchell Schwartz, OT, Chiefs
We could talk all day about the Browns’ inexplicable inability to retain their home-grown free agents, especially after new executive vice president Sashi Brown said at the scouting combine that rewarding those players who grew up in Cleveland’s system was a priority. Not so much in the end. Once the madness began, the Browns lost center Alex Mack, safety Tashaun Gipson, receiver Travis Benjamin (more on him in a minute), and Schwartz, and it could be argued that Schwartz is the biggest loss of the group. A second-round pick out of Cal in 2012, Schwartz struggled in both run-blocking and pass protection in his first couple of NFL seasons but really came around in 2015: With a quarterback situation that could charitably be called a dumpster fire, he allowed just three sacks, eight hits and 32 hurries in 1,135 total snaps.
The Chiefs got him for a fairly ridiculous price: five years, $33 million, with $15 million guaranteed. That’s second-tier guard money for a guy who developed into one of the better edge protectors on the open market, and he's got the potential to grow further in an Andy Reid system that emphasizes blocking fundamentals.
Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, LB, Bears
Were we to rank the top five position group needs among any NFL team before free agency started, the Bears’ inside linebacker situation would certainly be on the list. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio couldn’t unleash his schematic conceits to the level he desired because the group he had just wasn’t up to the task. In San Francisco, Fangio had Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, two true every-down linebackers who could do just about everything. When the Bears signed Trevathan from the Broncos and Freeman from the Colts, their picture at linebacker got a whole lot clearer.
Trevathan, who signed a four-year deal with $12 million guaranteed, was a sixth-round pick for Denver in 2012 and played under current Bears coach John Fox for three seasons. Now, he’ll use his combination of awareness in the passing game and run-stopping ability to become Fangio’s linchpin in the middle. Freeman, whose stellar 2015 season was lost in Indianapolis’s mess of a defense, can use his ranginess and versatility in all kinds of ways. He was signed for $6 million guaranteed on a three-year deal. It’s a great pair of deals for the Bears (they also signed underrated defensive tackle Akiem Hicks), who appear to have a real sense of direction on defense for the first time in a few seasons.
George Iloka, S, Bengals
This is one of just two deals on this list in which the player chose to re-sign with his 2015 team, and it’s hard to explain why nobody wanted to break the bank for Iloka. He fell off in coverage a bit last season but was still a very solid overall player, and it’s tough to do better than the insane 18.4 passer rating he allowed in coverage two years ago. Iloka has turned himself from an undisciplined athlete into a polished product, and the best could be yet to come, as he turns 26 later this month. The Bengals retained Iloka with a five-year, $30 million deal that will pay him $18 million in the first three seasons. That’s a relative bargain for a guy who can play everywhere on the field, from up around the line to deep quarters.
Lamar Miller, RB, Texans
The signing of Brock Osweiler was obviously the big story in Houston last week, but don’t discount the four-year, $26 million deal with $14 million guaranteed given to Miller, which landed Houston a big piece of its future offense for a manageable price. Miller gained 872 yards and scored eight touchdowns on 194 carries last year, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but the Dolphins gave him less than 10 carries in six different games last season, and he only had 20 carries in one game.
In spite of that puzzling usage and Miami’s inconsistent passing offense, Miller had some highly productive days, including a 114-carry, 175-yard game against the Texans last October, which certainly factored into Houston’s decision. In a scheme where the back is featured more often, Miller has the power and agility to challenge for a rushing title.
Sean Smith, CB, Raiders
General manager Reggie McKenzie has made a lot of smart moves in the last few years, but the team’s secondary remains an enormous question mark. The only cornerback who played above league average for the Silver and Black last season was David Amerson, whom the Raiders picked up off the waiver wire in September. Last year with the Chiefs, Smith combined with rookie stud Marcus Peters to form one of the most formidable duos in the NFL, and he could do the same with Amerson. Smith is a big, aggressive, technique-sound defender who should have seen more activity on the open market than he did, but that’s to Oakland's benefit, as is the four-year, $40 million contract with $20 million guaranteed that Smith signed. Oakland wanted Janoris Jenkins, who went to the Giants for mammoth money, but Smith is the more consistent player and the smarter move in the long run.
Jeremy Lane, CB, Seahawks
The Legion of Boom has been looking for a consistent fourth member for a long time. From Brandon Browner to Byron Maxwell to a host of super-scrubs in recent years, the Seahawks haven’t found a long-term match for Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Lane, who suffered a series of ghastly injuries on a first-quarter interception in Super Bowl XLIX, has shown the potential to be that guy, and did the same late in the 2015 season when he returned from those injuries without skipping a beat.
Seattle retained Lane with a four-year, $23 million contract with $11 million guaranteed. That would be an excellent deal if Lane were nothing more than one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league (which he has been), but he also shows a lot of ability as an outside corner. He has the size, talent and experience in Seattle’s system to be that fourth wheel, and if he hadn’t been hurt, someone would have paid a lot more for his services. Give him a full season with starter’s reps, and Lane could really surprise.
Travis Benjamin, WR, Chargers
Remember that dumpster fire at the quarterback position in Cleveland we were talking about? Well, take that dumpster fire, and replace it with Phillip Rivers throwing deep passes to Benjamin, who caught 68 passes on 125 targets for 966 yards and five touchdowns in 2015. Benjamin enjoyed a short-lived period as Johnny Manziel’s favorite deep target, and he caught eight passes over 20 yards in the air for 363 yards and four touchdowns. Last season, Rivers completed 17 of 59 deep passes for six touchdowns and two interceptions, with no consistent deep threats on the field. This could be a match made in heaven, and when you factor in Benjamin’s four-year, $24 million deal with $13 million guaranteed, it's a pretty cheap date.