Evaluating the Opening Free-Agent Moves
First things first: Let’s not get too caught up in analyzing the financial windfalls of this year’s free agents. NFL contracts, and especially ones from the 32-team open market, are inflating rapidly due to salary cap growth. Compare these new salaries to the existing salaries across most NFL rosters, and it will appear almost every free agent has been overpaid.
But we can still compare contracts between players who were signed this year. We’ll do some of that. But the main point of this article is to shine light on the acquisitions that are most important from a pure football standpoint. Naturally, we’ll start with….
Brock Osweiler’s caution flag
Starting quarterbacks who are barely old enough to rent a car at regular price are almost never obtained in free agency. The Texans are hoping they’ve found theirs in Brock Osweiler, 25. Their leadership brass will talk about how Osweiler was the guy they wanted all along and how they believe he has all the tools, etc. etc. In truth, a meaningful portion of this move was made on conjecture. Osweiler has made only seven NFL starts since being drafted in the second round by Denver in 2012. In those starts, he had a few more ups than downs, but his performance was also slanted by the defensively driven Broncos’ conservative offensive approach.
Houston, too, has a top-tier defense. It’s not Denver’s D, but it was enough to carry the Texans to an AFC South title. Maybe coach Bill O’Brien believes he can win while keeping a leash on Osweiler—at least early on. O’Brien’s quick-strike passing game and zone-intensive rushing attack are conducive to quarterback leashing.
Nevertheless, there’s still a large red flag with Osweiler, which is that the Broncos weren’t willing to spend big for him. They reportedly offered $16 million a year, $2 million less than the Texans and almost $4 million less than the QB franchise tag value. (They used their tag on Von Miller.) Never would an NFL team that’s entirely sold on a young quarterback let him get away for the difference of $2 million. That Denver did is telling, because unlike the Texans, the Broncos did not have to rely on much conjecture in evaluating Osweiler. They’ve seen him in practice and in the film room for four years. Ostensibly, they feel he has limitations and flaws.
This smells like Matt Flynn all over again. Recall that before Flynn signed a three-year, $20 million deal that he never came close to living up to in Seattle, his longtime offensive coordinator with the Packers, Joe Philbin, passed on him in Miami. Philbin knew more about Flynn than anyone. Just as John Elway knew more about Osweiler.
As for what the Broncos do now….
I’ll admit, I did not consider the possibility of Colin Kaepernick joining Gary Kubiak’s offense when I wrote last week that Kaepernick would be out of the league before he won another 10 games. I still don’t believe Kaepernick is a quality pro quarterback, but the idea of him in Kubiak’s move-oriented zone scheme gives me some pause. I didn’t anticipate the Broncos letting Osweiler get away. A scheme like Kubiak’s, which features a lot of crossing routes, half-field reads and either-or passing options, can naturally instill discipline in a player. That said, this pertains to the more constricted side of Kubiak’s scheme. To run his full-fledged offense, Ryan Fitzpatrick would make more sense for Kubiak. Fitzpatrick is not necessarily a pro’s pro—he can be erratic in ball placement and decision-making—but he’s still an experienced veteran who’s shown some capacity for consistently playing within the pocket. He’d be a sounder, smarter signing than Kaepernick. (And a much, much sounder, smarter signing than RG3.)
There’s one more quarterback worth discussing. In fact, he signed …
The most interesting contract of 2016 free agency
That’d be Chase Daniel, getting three years and $21 million to be the backup in Philadelphia. That’s an average salary of $7 million. The league’s next highest annual backup salary belongs to Mark Sanchez at $4.5 million (for now; the Daniel deal could mean Sanchez’s termination in Philly). After that, it’s Chad Henne in Jacksonville at $4 million.
Is Daniel nearly twice as valuable as Henne? Not, not even under an inflated cap. Unless… you’re thinking Daniel might become your starter. New Eagles coach Doug Pederson has said the starting job belongs to Sam Bradford (whom Philly recently re-signed for two years and $36 million. In reality, it’s now a wide-open competition. Daniel, having spent the past three years under Pederson and his schemes in Kansas City, could actually have the edge. This is the inverse of Denver’s Osweiler situation. Pederson knows Daniel better than any other head coach in the league, save for maybe (and only maybe) Andy Reid. The fact that Pederson has invested so heavily in the 29-year-old Daniel speaks volumes.
That’s all for the quarterbacks (for now). There are plenty of other free agent moves worth highlighting. Let’s start with:
1. Rodney McLeod, FS, Eagles
Five years, $37 million ($17 million guaranteed)
Quietly for the past two years with the Rams, McLeod has been the rangiest centerfield safety in football not named Earl Thomas. His speed translates as effectively east and west as it does north and south. And when he goes north and south, he’s a willing and able hitter. Coaches who have to scheme against McLeod have told me they think he’s in Thomas’s class.
2. Cedric Thornton, DL, Cowboys
Four years, $17 million ($9 million guaranteed)
The former Eagle has only four sacks in four NFL seasons, so there’s a perception that he’s a lower-tier signing. Not true. On first and second down, Thornton is as good as almost any NFL D-lineman. He has brute strength, lateral mobility and a knack for locating the ball. He can also penetrate against the run. The only hesitation with him in Dallas is, Where does he play along the 4-3 front? As a 3-4 end with the Eagles, Thornton was great because he could two-gap or one-gap, depending on the formation. The only position that calls for two-gapping in a 4-3 scheme such as Rod Marinelli’s is the nose shade. Thornton has never played there full-time, and at 6-3, he might be a tad tall for the role. The other option: playing him at 3-technique, where he’d rotate with Tyrone Crawford on base downs and maybe get a few more nickel pass-rushing opportunities than he did in Philadelphia. However Thornton winds up being used, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture: The Cowboys got a very good player.
3. Matt Forte, RB, Jets
Three years, $12 million ($8 million guaranteed)
Forte, 30, has yet to slow down as a ball-carrier. He remains a patient, smooth runner with surprisingly deft lateral agility. Considering he’ll get just 12 to 15 rushes a game ahead of Bilal Powell and former Saint Khiry Robinson in New York’s three-back rotation, Forte might stave off Father Time another two or three seasons. Even better: Where he’s most valuable to New York is as a receiver—not just out of the backfield, but split wide. That’s critical in a Jets offense that employs a lot of three- and four-receiver spread sets. In those sets, where the running back lines up determines where the mismatch will be—either for the back himself or for a wideout. A back with diverse receiving skills like Forte makes the mismatch variables more dynamic.
These are the good bang-for-buck players. But how about the big-money guys, about whom you’re asking…
Are They Worth It?
Olivier Vernon, DE, Giants
Five years, $85 million ($52.5 million guaranteed)
Is Vernon really worth J.J. Watt money? Of course not. But remember, the contracts have been inflated by the soaring salary cap. So we really should ask: Is Vernon, at $52.5 million guaranteed, that much better than Bruce Irvin at $19 million guaranteed? Irvin, so far, is the only other clear-cut starting edge defender who has garnered a significant long-term deal. (Tamba Hali re-signed with the Chiefs for only three years, Jason Pierre-Paul with the Giants for one. The suspended Aldon Smith is still available. And Mario Williams, who is no longer in any of these players’ class, signed with Miami for two years.)
Vernon, 25, is a very fine player. The former Dolphin can bend the corner as a pass rusher, chase down ball-carriers in short areas from behind and, though relatively slight-framed 275 pounds, hold ground at the point of attack in run defense. That said, he’s not three times the player Irvin is. The Giants have been plagued by an awful pass rush the past few seasons. They (desperately) overspent to correct that.
Malik Jackson, DT, Jaguars
Six years, $85.5 million ($42 million guaranteed)
Vernon cashed in because the Giants (and presumably other teams bidding behind the scenes) weren’t comparing him to other edge players in this year’s market. They were comparing him to Malik Jackson, this year’s most expensive interior defensive linemen. Outside defensive lineman will almost always garner more than inside defensive linemen.
It must also be asked: Is Jackson worth this much? He became the darling of this free-agent class because people saw what an unheralded but crucial piece he was along Denver’s dominant four-man front. He also got progressively better against the run, culminating in an overwhelming first- and second-down performance in Super Bowl 50. The Jaguars run a pure 4-3 scheme with minimal blitzing and lots of stunts and twists along the D-line. Stylistically, Jackson is a perfect fit. That said, it’s healthy to be leery of fast-rising free agents who already have a Super Bowl ring and, now, financial security for their life and that of their children, grandchildren and maybe even great-grandchildren. It’s not fair to speculate whether a player in Jackson’s position will maintain his fire. There’s no evidence from Jackson’s four years in Denver that he won’t. He’s always played hard. But we must take a wait-and-see approach here. Credit to the Jaguars for structuring Jackson’s deal in a safe, responsible fashion. They can get out of it after two years, $31.5 million (there’s another $10.5 million guaranteed for injury).
Oh, and one other thing: The Jaguars had a significant advantage in bidding for Jackson because they’re one of six NFL teams that play where there’s no state income tax (the others are Seattle, Dallas, Houston, Miami and Tampa Bay). Which makes their $85 million worth more than, say, the Raiders’ $85 million. That’s something fans and media rarely talk about. But you can be assured that agents and front-office executives do.
Janoris Jenkins, CB, Giants
Five years, $62.5 million ($29 million guaranteed)
The Giants weren’t only snake-bit by their bad pass rush. They’ve also been iffy in the secondary the past few years. And so they spent a king’s ransom on the ex-Ram Jenkins, one of the league’s more unique man-to-man corners because of how he plays off-coverage and takes so many chances breaking on balls. Jenkins grew more disciplined last season and was significantly less vulnerable to double moves. But given how he played in Years 1 through 3, it’s not smart to assume he’ll always remain the player he was in Year 4. Plus, the Giants’ secondary woes have had more to do with safeties than cornerbacks. Jenkins, a predominantly right-side corner, is simply replacing Prince Amukamara (unsigned), who had a stellar 2015. The Giants have taken a very big gamble on a player who could be prone to gambling too much himself.
Going back to offense, as for the other big signings….
Alex Mack, C, Falcons
Five years, $45 million ($28.5 million guaranteed)
Good, solid move by the Falcons here. They’ve had significant and costly issues at center since Todd McClure retired following the 2012 season. They’ve also had reverberating issues off and on at both guard positions. Mack is steady in all facets and adroit and smart enough blocking on the move to fit offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone system.
Kelechi Osemele, LG, Raiders
Five years, $58.5 million ($25.4 million guaranteed)
A little costly? Perhaps. But the Raiders were in the unique position of being compelled to spend big due to cap space and the NFL’s salary floor. (This, by the way, if not managed wisely could present some difficult scenarios a few years from now, when young stars like Derek Carr, Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper are due for second contracts.) The bottom line: Osemele was the best guard on this market. His arrival upgrades Oakland’s other guard position, which will now be filled by the rising Gabe Jackson, who himself should improve by operating on the right side. Osemele and Jackson can both play on the move—Osemele more as a zone-blocker and Jackson more as a puller for gap-scheme runs like “power” and “counter.”
Mohamed Sanu, WR, Falcons
Five years, $32.5 million ($14 million guaranteed)
Sanu is lithe, lanky and versatile. He’ll be an upgrade over a decaying Roddy White. The only drawback: The Bengals never considered him an every-down player. They preferred Sanu as a No. 3 who primarily operated out of the slot. That wasn’t just because. Sanu, they felt, was more effective in short spurts where his energy expenditures could be paced. Now the Falcons are paying him to be a bona fide No. 2.
Marvin Jones, WR, Lions
Five years, $40 million ($17 million guaranteed)
It’s obvious, and maybe unfair to say, but here it goes: Jones is a nice player—acrobatic downfield, effective near the sidelines and light-footed enough to run almost a full route tree. Unfortunately, he’s replacing Calvin Johnson, which means the Lions have forked over big cash to a player who, even at his best, will be a clear downgrade.
Coby Fleener, TE, Saints
Five years, $36 million ($14.6 million guaranteed)
It’s totally justified that Dwayne Allen, who was drafted by the Colts one round behind Fleener and placed one spot behind him in the tight end pecking order, wound up getting the bigger contract and staying in Indy. Allen is a stronger, more reliable all-around player. In fact, Fleener, with his propensity for dropped passes and miscalculated routes, can be downright aggravating to watch on film. Fortunately, he joined the one offense that could fit him best. The Saints make stars out of tight ends (see 35-year-old Ben Watson and his 825 yards last season) because their system does so much with multireceiver route combinations, particularly down the seams and near the hash marks. Drew Brees is the best back-shoulder thrower in football in this part of the field. If Fleener can learn to catch those passes—and you can bet they’ll be repped religiously in practice—he has a chance to be an 800-yard tight end.
So Who’s Left?
Plenty of fine players, and probably at bargain values at this point. Some of the best—discounting the major red-flag uber-talents like Greg Hardy and Aldon Smith—include…
Defensive linemen Nick Fairley, Akiem Hicks and Terrance Knighton.
Fairley and Hicks were among my top 10 free-agent dark horses. And the thunderous but light-footed Knighton would have been on there if my editors had allowed me to make the top 15.
Eric Weddle, S, formerly of Chargers
At this point in his decorated career, Weddle wants to go to a contender that will have him for the next few years. He’d make great sense for a team that runs a multifaceted, disguise-oriented scheme. The challenge is finding a team like that. Most of the contenders don’t have a ton of cap space (probably not a coincidence), and teams that makes the most sense, like, say, the Steelers and their pressure-driven zone coverage rotations, don’t typically sign older free agents.
Casey Hayward, CB, formerly of Packers
It’s shocking he wasn’t scooped up on Day One of free agency. Hayward is one of the few corners on this year’s market who can play man and zone coverage both outside and in the slot.
Russell Okung, LT, formerly of Seahawks
He and Donald Penn have not found homes because the teams with the most cap space coincidentally do not need a left tackle—and this year’s draft is pretty rich in tackles. Okung might be had at a bargain rate now. When he’s healthy, you can ask him to spar with defensive ends one-on-one for much of the game.