Editor’s note: Each week throughout the 2015 NFL season, The MMQB will publish an advanced analytics story by Neil Hornsby, the president of football operations at Pro Football Focus.
Somehow, free agency always turns out to be a bit of a crapshoot. You can understand the low hit rate with the draft—the differing levels of competition and variety of schemes run at the college level can sometimes make projection more of an art than a science. Free agency though? There’s normally so much good data you would expect better results.
However, every year teams spend money (often a lot of money) and get next to nothing in return. This year will almost certainly be no different, so let’s look at four of the big money signings (greater than $5 million per year) for whom the initial indications are not good.
Note: Grading explanation is here.
Byron Maxwell, CB, Eagles ($10.5M/year); PFF Grade: 49.0
It’s one thing to pay $10.5M for a proven superstar. It’s another to shell out that amount of cash for a guy who was coming off, at best, an average season. Last year Maxwell had one only one very good game, against (you guessed it) the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 14. Playing in the difficult slot role as opposed to his usual position at right cornerback, he defensed two passes and made another couple of stops on third down. He was excellent—it would be difficult not to be impressed… unless of course you watched every other game and saw how frequently his play failed to deviate from that of any mid-tier cornerback.
Now, Maxwell is not a bad player, and after a terrible start to the season during which he allowed 21 of 25 throws into his coverage to be completed, he has improved markedly—if not to the standard you’d expect a $10.5M a year corner to produce. It’s likely he’ll be a decent player going forward, but the price tag is likely to leave commentators consistently questioning his value.
• HOW TO WIN FREE AGENCY? DON’T PLAY: Think spending big will lead to winning big? Ask any number of teams that dished out major dollars in recent years how that worked out. Why a better way of roster building is to sit out free agency and watch the draft picks roll in.
Derek Newton, OT, Texans ($5M/Year); PFF Grade: 44.8
There was disagreement at PFF towers about this guy during free agency. While some pointed to his good overall season in 2014 and his league-best run block grade, others worried about where the balance of that grade came from as well as his performance in previous years; this was the dreaded “contract year” they argued.
Up until Week 12 last year, Newton was grading poorly. For the last five games of 2014 he was by far the best right tackle in the NFL.
Additionally in the two years prior he’d ranked as the 59th and 70th best tackle in football. Saying those things again now makes that perspective much more clear.
There is no question Newton is a highly talented player who has shown significant upside—just very sporadically. The overriding concern here is the timing of that form and the money paid for it.
So far it’s looking like a poor investment, as he’s once more struggling in pass protection, logging a 40.8 grade. In mitigation, he has been moved around a lot, playing only 306 snaps at his usual right tackle position together with 87 at left guard, 206 at right guard and 30 at left tackle. But regardless, most tackles play better when they move inside, not worse.
Curtis Lofton, LB, Raiders ($6M/year); PFF Grade: 35.4
For a team that has generally spent well in free agency, this one came out of the blue. To overspend massively on someone I thought was generally acknowledged as a busted flush last year is not really in Oakland GM Reggie McKenzie’s M.O.
Back in 2012, the Falcons let Lofton go in free agency to New Orleans because they realized he was never going to amount to any more than a two-down linebacker. At that time he was a real banger moving forward, but they knew his lack of coverage skills limited him. Then in 2013, even his run defense started to wane and it degenerated even further last year; our third-lowest graded linebacker against the run, he missed a league-high 22 tackles.
It was really no surprise then this year when he struggled in every facet of play. He has already missed nine tackles, and in the Raiders’ loss to the Bears he allowed a perfect passer rating of 158.3 into his coverage. While $6.5M (his salary this year) is a lot to throw away, the good news here is that this is really only a one-year deal with no penalties for cutting and running in 2016.
Orlando Franklin, G, Chargers ($7M/year); PFF Grade: 62.3
In case you were beginning to think this article was one in which my hindsight was always 20/20, I offer you the case for the defense: one Orlando Franklin. Back in February I thought he was the best guard in free agency and while I’m still clinging to some hope that may be the case, so far it has not panned out well.
Early on he really struggled in pass protection before injuring his ankle in week three. He returned in week seven but was carted off the field with a knee injury just 61 snaps into his return. So far this season he has allowed two sacks, three hits and 11 hurries in just 134 pass blocks. By way of comparison in the whole of 2014 (702 pass blocks) he allowed one sack, two hits and eight hurries.
Now I’d be the first to tell you that players from the offensive line probably have the longest adjustment period when acclimating to a new team, but that is a big difference and a lot more than I’d expect. It will be interesting to see how this one works out, but getting back to the field will be step one.
Neil Hornsby is the president of football operations at profootballfocus.com.