NFL free agency has kicked off, which means it’s time to start our annual analysis of the notable deals.
Each year in this space, I run through every significant free-agent signing and trade across the first two months of the NFL offseason. I hand out a grade for each move from the team’s perspective. The grade tries to estimate a player’s chance of outplaying the contract he signed, given his history and the track record of similar players, as well as whether the team could have used the money more wisely, given its situation. To say it is an inexact science would be an affront to science.
Grades come in as ESPN confirms various deals, and they’re subject to change later in March as we find out more specifics about the actual structure of contracts and what is and is not guaranteed. If you don’t see a grade for a deal that has been reported, check back later.
Jump to an interesting deal:
How the Diggs trade helps both
Jimmy Graham? At age 33?
Why the 49ers won their trade
Vikings are all-in on Kirk Cousins
Bill O’Brien and the Texans did what?!
Did the Browns overpay for a TE?
Ryan Tannehill got how much?
Tuesday, March 17
The deal: Two years, $50 million
I’m admittedly not always the easiest grader, but it’s hard to find much wrong with bringing back a Hall of Fame quarterback on a below-market deal. This is more likely to be a one-year commitment with a voidable year to help create short-term cap space, which is just fine when you’re making space for a franchise quarterback.
Brees didn’t let his slow end to 2018 carry over and was excellent yet again in 2019. There’s always going to be a chance that the 41-year-old will drop off in a similar way to how Tom Brady did in 2019, but the Saints rightfully are going to take another shot at a Super Bowl with Brees in the fold.
The deal: Four years, $51 million
Patriots coach Bill Belichick is a magician. The Lions drafted Van Noy in the second round in 2014 and couldn’t figure out what to do with him. Belichick traded a sixth-round pick for Van Noy and a seventh-rounder. (Detroit used the pick on quarterback Brad Kaaya, who didn’t make it to October on their roster.) Belichick spent a half-season finding the right role for Van Noy, signed him to a two-year extension for modest money, and then got three years of excellent work at a below-market rate.
Now, Belichick will likely recoup a compensatory fourth-round pick for letting Van Noy leave for the Dolphins. The Patriots have shown an ability to let linebackers leave without missing a beat, and I suspect they’ll find the next Van Noy and do fine. The Dolphins were starting replacement-level players at inside linebacker for most of the season, but this is typically a position where even bad teams can draft and develop useful contributors. The Browns, Miami’s predecessors in tanking, did little player development under Sashi Brown but did manage to unearth a pair of useful starters in Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert. Cleveland also traded for Jamie Collins and signed him to a massive deal — you can’t win them all.
This isn’t quite a Collins-sized deal for Van Noy, but it’s a lot of money for a guy who would have probably come in closer to $10 million per year if he had been playing for a different team. This is really a one-year, $15 million deal with Van Noy’s 2021 and 2022 base salaries guaranteed only for injury, which gives the Dolphins more flexibility if they want to get out of the contract. At that one-year price tag, though, Van Noy is basically going to have to repeat his 2019 season and produce as both a pass-rusher and a coverage linebacker. Typically, these sort of significant investments in free-agent inside linebackers turn out to be disappointing.
The deal: Two years, $23 million
Most defensive tackles with a 10.5-sack, 24-knockdown season on their résumé would expect to get a massive deal once they hit free agency. Reed did not, in part because of a domestic violence accusation that led the NFL to suspend the Alabama product for six games in 2019. Reed wasn’t very good when he returned, as he managed only two sacks and eight knockdowns for a Seahawks team crying out for a second pass-rusher behind Jadeveon Clowney.
At 27, Reed likely took a short-term deal from the Seahawks in the hopes of producing another big year before the salary cap rises dramatically in a couple of years.
The deal: Three years, $27 million
The Saints usually make a splash in free agency by adding a player nobody expects them to grab. This year, their splash might be unexpectedly keeping guys around. It’s no surprise that the Saints wanted to retain Onyemata, who did a solid job of filling in for Sheldon Rankins in what was essentially a lost season for the 2016 first-round pick. Onyemata finished with three sacks and 11 knockdowns while also serving as a stout defender against the run.
After Rankins struggled to return from a torn Achilles last season, it looks as if the Saints are prioritizing Onyemata’s future as a centerpiece of their defensive line. Onyemata is likely to start alongside Malcom Brown in 2020, with Rankins and All-Name team member Shy Tuttle as the back half of the rotation. With the Saints’ secondary in flux, retaining Onyemata to bring back a key piece of the defensive line makes plenty of sense.
The deal: Five years, $85 million
Before 2019, Armstead looked like he had settled in as a run-stuffing defensive end on early downs who could occasionally move inside in passing situations with limited success. As so many players for the 49ers did on defense last season, though, he blew away whatever expectations we might have had for him. The former first-round pick went from racking up nine sacks on 1,621 defensive snaps over four seasons to generating 10 sacks on 779 snaps in 2019.
Armstead’s 10 sacks came on 18 knockdowns, which suggests he was slightly lucky; typically, 18 knockdowns would generate about eight sacks. On the other hand, ESPN’s pass rush win rate analysis suggests Armstead actually created 11 sacks, with four of those 11 generated for other players. He moved all across the formation to create pass-rushing opportunities and beat some good players for sacks, most notably multiple-time Pro Bowler Trai Turner.
Hours after reports suggested the 49ers were close to an extension with Armstead, San Francisco shipped DeForest Buckner to the Colts for a first-round pick. Both Armstead and Sheldon Day are free agents, and with Dee Ford expected to see the field more frequently in 2020, we’re going to see more of Armstead on the interior as a defensive tackle. The Oregon product will almost surely play inside on a more regular basis next season, which will hurt his value after he shifted between defensive end and defensive tackle last season.
The Armstead deal appears to be something close to a two-year, $35 million pact or a three-year, $50 million deal before the 49ers would be forced to make a serious decision about his future. To make that money work, Armstead would need to play like the guy who was excellent against the run and a difference-maker as a pass-rusher in 2019 for three more seasons. Given that 2019 is an outlier in terms of Armstead’s pass-rushing production, I would take the under here.
The deal: Three years, $30 million
After disappointing with the Browns, Collins made his way back to the Patriots in 2019 and was an absolute revelation. Unleashed in a role at the line of scrimmage as a pass-rusher while also taking snaps as a more traditional inside linebacker, he racked up seven sacks and picked off three passes while playing 81% of the defensive snaps.
I figured that Collins and New England could come to terms and find common ground on a deal that would keep him in Foxborough at a bit of a discount. Instead, Collins found the next-best thing, as he signed with former Patriots executives Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia in Detroit on a three-year, $30 million pact with $18 million guaranteed.
Outside players have seemed to get worse after joining the Lions under Patricia, which doesn’t bode well for Collins’ chances. The Lions need to carve out a specific role to play to his athleticism and unique instincts, and that takes work. Belichick also had a pair of linebackers who could rotate in the same role with Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower. Christian Jones and Jarrad Davis aren’t the same caliber of linebacker. It would take the 2019 version of Collins to excel under this deal, and that guy didn’t make the trip from the Patriots to the Browns the first time Collins hit free agency.
The deal: Five years, $100 million
The two teams most impacted by the league and players agreeing to a new CBA at the last moment approached their problem in different ways. Without the ability to use both the franchise and transition tags as planned, the Titans went over the odds to lock up quarterback Ryan Tannehill, which freed up running back Derrick Henry for the franchise tag. The Cowboys went the other way, using the franchise tag on quarterback Dak Prescott and letting Cooper hit free agency unfettered.
It was a dangerous move in case Cooper was bowled over by an offer from a competitive team, but the biggest offer for the former Raiders star appeared to come from Washington, which doesn’t yet know what it has in quarterback Dwayne Haskins. In the end, after all the public negotiating the Cowboys did to try to convince Prescott to take a hometown discount, it was Cooper who sacrificed by taking less money to stick around with the team.
Don’t get me wrong: This is a massive deal. Cooper is only the second wideout to breach the $20 million barrier; only Julio Jones and his three-year, $66 million extension top Cooper’s average annual value. When you include the two years that were left on Jones’ prior extension, the Falcons star took home $87 million over five years. By overall value, Cooper now has the largest deal of any receiver.
Given that the Cowboys traded a first-round pick to acquire Cooper in fall 2018 and then rode several huge games from him to a winning streak and a division title, it’s difficult to imagine that any Cooper deal would have come in much below $20 million per season. He could have signed a deal when he was initially traded to the Cowboys or before Jones signed his extension last offseason, but by waiting until Dallas had no choice but to pay up, Cooper ended up getting a top-end deal. You get the feeling Prescott might be watching with admiration.
Monday, March 16
Vikings grade: B
Bills grade: B
Bills general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott have rightfully been lauded for building a selfless, winning culture over the past three seasons. The two former Panthers executives deserve plenty of credit for what they’ve done, but those plaudits generally ignored that the Bills nearly stepped on the land mine of 2019 with their attempt to trade for Antonio Brown. After signing Josh Norman earlier this offseason, the Bills are testing their culture’s ability to absorb talent by trading for a player who was live-tweeting his desire to leave the Vikings on Monday.
In terms of the on-field fit, there are few players who make more sense for the Bills than Diggs. When you consider his toughness between the numbers and his ability to make plays downfield, he should be an ideal No. 1 wideout for Josh Allen, who had the highest off-target percentage of any quarterback in football last season and didn’t do much throwing downfield. The only receivers who averaged more yards per route run in 2019 than Diggs were Michael Thomas and rookie Titans phenom A.J. Brown.
The Bills did just fine with John Brown and Cole Beasley as their top two wideouts in 2019, but the acquisition of Diggs pushes those two into more accurate roles as the second and third receivers. Buffalo suddenly has one of the best wide receiver groups in the league. The Bills were the league’s seventh-most run-heavy offense in 2019, but after adding Diggs, I would expect them to throw the ball more frequently in 2020. With a solid offensive line and deep positional groups at wide receiver and tight end, Allen has everything he could ask for.
Diggs’ contract is also team-friendly. The Bills will be acquiring the final four years of his extension, which have a total of $47.5 million remaining, none of which is presently guaranteed. I suspect he will start looking for a new deal as early as next offseason, especially if DeAndre Hopkins signs an extension with the Cardinals three years away from the end of his deal. The Bills should be able to get Diggs to play out the next two seasons for $23.5 million combined before looking at a new deal.
At the same time, I wonder whether the Bills and Diggs will turn out to be an amicable relationship. He was publicly frustrated by Kirk Cousins and the Vikings organization as a whole at different times over the past two seasons. Rumors of a possible Diggs trade have been circulating for more than a year, at times inspired by his missing practice. Diggs isn’t Antonio Brown, and plenty of teams have taken on mercurial wideouts and reached new heights after taking that risk, but this move seems at odds with what the Bills have built. This is a worthwhile, logical risk for the Bills, but if they struggle on offense, Diggs is going to take the blame.
If the Vikings were going to move on from Diggs, this was probably the time to do so. This trade frees up $5.5 million in cap room for them to try to work on a long-term deal for safety Anthony Harris, who was unexpectedly retained with the franchise tag Monday morning. The Vikings now have two first-round picks (Nos. 22 and 25) and two third-round picks in what appears to be a deep class of wide receivers. They aren’t going to pick somebody who will immediately be better than Diggs, but they are well-positioned to use one of their first-rounders or a second-rounder on a player who can step in as the No. 2 option behind Adam Thielen.
Furthermore, with the Vikings going heavy on two-tight-end sets and re-signing fullback C.J. Ham to an extension, I expect they’ll go with more two-tight-end personnel in 2020 and use a second wideout less frequently than they would have with Diggs in the fold. I would argue that having Diggs on the field is better than having Ham or Irv Smith Jr., but if Mike Zimmer wants the Vikings to be a ball-control, run-first offense, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for them team to pay two wideouts top-15 money. Given the public and private frustration Diggs expressed over the past two years, a fresh start probably made sense for both sides.
I can see the logic in this trade for both teams. The real losers of this trade, honestly, are the Texans. Diggs is an excellent player, and DeAndre Hopkins is a year older than his positional rival, but most onlookers would agree that Hopkins is a better player on the field and a less disruptive player off it. The Bills just sent the Vikings four picks, including a first-rounder, to acquire Diggs. Those picks are worth 21.9 points on Chase Stuart’s draft value chart, which is something close to the eighth overall pick in a typical draft.
Meanwhile, the Texans netted a second-round pick from the Cardinals and swapped fourth-round selections. Even if we don’t consider any time value for the Cardinals getting their fourth-round pick a year early, Houston came away with a pick in the middle of the second round for a better player and absorbed a player in David Johnson whose contract was $10 million or so underwater as part of the deal. If you thought the Odell Beckham Jr. deal was an outlier and the Texans would get a more realistic return for Hopkins, this trade proved otherwise.
The deal: Three years, $30 million
The Jets desperately need offensive linemen to try to protect Sam Darnold, but I’m not entirely sure Fant is one. He is a college basketball player who took only a handful of snaps at tight end, and the Seahawks tried Fant as their starting left tackle in 2016, with middling results over 664 snaps. He then tore his ACL during the summer of 2017, with Seattle eventually acquiring Duane Brown. When Fant returned, he typically served as a sixth offensive lineman and quasi-tight end, though he was an injury replacement for two games at right tackle in 2018 and four at left tackle in 2019, including a playoff win over the Eagles.
Fant looked better at left tackle when he was filling in for Brown last season, but he’s still nominally a project at tackle, and he should profile as the sort of player a team might bring in as a borderline starter or swing tackle. A desperate Jets team instead gave him $13.7 million in guarantees to start at one of their two tackle spots, likely on Darnold’s blind side. There aren’t many exciting options at tackle in this free-agent class, but Fant turns 28 this summer and has 16 full games under his belt at tackle, most of which weren’t very good. I can understand why the Jets hope Fant will be a solid starter, but it’s hard to think this secures or solves much for the Jets.
The deal: Four years, $44 million
I didn’t see this sort of deal coming for Glasgow, who never made a huge impression on me up front for Detroit. It looks better on closer review, however. Stats LLC credited Glasgow with zero sacks allowed in 2019, and ESPN’s pass block win rate metric assigned him just two sacks. Glasgow was 24th among guards in PBWR, and he missed only two games in four seasons in Detroit. The Lions were never a good run-blocking team with Glasgow in the lineup, as they ranked 20th twice and both 31st and 32nd in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metrics, but we can’t entirely pin that on Glasgow.
Broncos offensive line coach Mike Munchak is one of the best in the business, and given how much difficulty Denver has had fixing its offensive line in years past, Glasgow could be a solid regular for the team. One of the reasons you hire Munchak, though, is the hope that he’ll help you develop competent guys out of draft picks at a fraction of this cost. Glasgow has the eighth-largest average annual salary of any guard in the league on a multiyear contract, suggesting that he needs to be a Pro Bowler or something close to it to justify this deal. The Broncos probably could have used this money more to help on the defensive side of the ball.
The deal: Three years, $30 million
What do you do when you get out of Joe Flacco-induced cap hell? For Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta, the answer seems to be build one of the league’s most intimidating defensive lines. After trading for Calais Campbell, the Ravens added another piece up front by signing Brockers from the Rams on a deal with $21 million guaranteed. In doing so, Baltimore likely waved goodbye to former starter Michael Pierce, who seems set to leave for another team in free agency.
Pierce is an incredibly talented nose tackle, but the Ravens should be just fine in the short-term by adding Brockers and Campbell to their rotation. As is the case with Campbell and incumbent Brandon Williams, Brockers has the size and athleticism to play multiple techniques and positions along the line for the Ravens, including the nose. All three might be best at defensive end, as is the case for fellow returnee Chris Wormley, but I would expect the Ravens to draft a big body to compete with 2019 fifth-rounder Daylon Mack for those moments when a 340-pounder is needed to two-gap. Also, Brockers has missed just two games since the end of his rookie season, which can go a long way in making this type of midtier deal work.
The deal: Three years, $39 million
Just when you thought general manager Howie Roseman was going to head into the market for a top-tier cornerback, the Eagles’ first big splash in free agency is … a defensive lineman. This deal contains $26 million fully guaranteed, which means the 27-year-old Hargrave will likely be with the Eagles for at least the next two seasons.
I’m not sure nose tackle was an enormous need for the Eagles or a position they needed to fill with this sort of investment. Philly was fourth in rush defense DVOA last season, despite losing Malik Jackson to a season-ending injury in Week 1. Tim Jernigan and Hassan Ridgeway were already free agents, but the Eagles have Jackson coming back alongside Fletcher Cox for 2020, and two-down nose tackles aren’t usually this expensive.
Hargrave can be an impactful pass-rusher in addition to his run duties, and Jackson can take snaps outside as a defensive end, but if you had told me the Eagles were giving a defensive free agent $13 million per season, I would have guessed just about every other position on that side of the ball before landing on a nose tackle. Although I like Hargrave as a player and could see this sort of deal making sense for another team, this wasn’t the best use of Philadelphia’s cap space.
The deal: Five years, $82.5 million
After he spent the early part of his Cowboys career as an inconsistent safety, Dallas moved Jones back to cornerback full-time and reaped the benefits the past two seasons. He was a revelation in 2018 and continued to play very well in 2019. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, opposing quarterbacks completed an even 50% of their passes when Jones was the nearest defender in coverage last season, which was the seventh-best mark in the league for corners with at least 250 coverage snaps. Opposing quarterbacks mostly left Jones alone, as he was targeted on a mere 13.0% of pass attempts last season; the only corner with 250 or more coverage snaps who was targeted less frequently was the Chargers’ Casey Hayward.
There are some fair quibbles. Jones didn’t follow No. 1 receivers, as about one-third of his targets as the nearest defender in coverage came against the opposing team’s top wideout. More than 95% of his snaps came on the right side of the defense in both 2018 and 2019. He also hasn’t been a ball hawk, racking up two interceptions and three forced fumbles in five seasons with the Cowboys. Interception totals can fluctuate wildly from year to year, but the Dolphins can’t count on Jones to force a half-dozen takeaways in 2020.
Of course, if Xavien Howard intercepts seven passes again, the Dolphins will be just fine with the league’s most expensive cornerback duo. On one hand, signing Jones limits Howard’s value. Miami moved Howard to both sides of the field during his abbreviated five-game season in 2019, often to cover the opposing team’s top wide receiver. The Dolphins have to choose between playing sides, which would limit Howard’s value, or moving their corners to account for matchups, which would put Jones in an unfamiliar role.
At the same time, opposing teams now can’t hide their No. 1 wide receiver from a top-tier cornerback. The Dolphins aren’t exactly in a division with great receiving corps — the AFC East is currently deepest in the slot — but it’s interesting to see coach Brian Flores play things like one of the rare Patriots veterans who seems to have learned from what Bill Belichick values in New England.
Over the past decade, Belichick has repeatedly focused his investments in the secondary while letting talented edge rushers and defensive linemen leave in free agency. The names have changed over time, and Belichick’s defenses haven’t always been great, but he clearly espouses building from the secondary. With the NFL’s two highest-paid cornerbacks, the Dolphins will hope that great coverage will form the basis of a productive defense. Given that he is a 27-year-old corner with two years of excellent football under his belt, it’s no surprise that Jones just soared to the top of the cornerback market.
The deal: Two years, $16 million
I’m not sure how much Graham brings to the table at this point in his career. He’s one of the NFL’s two or three worst blocking tight ends, so we won’t bother there. As a receiver, his biggest impact with the Packers was typically on broken plays and when the other team would forget about him in coverage. The guy who used to be able to physically overwhelm defensive backs and run past linebackers wasn’t really there.
For all the chatter about how Graham was going to be a devastating threat for Aaron Rodgers in the red zone, he caught eight passes there in two seasons in Green Bay, five of which went for scores. Rodgers had an 84.4 passer rating with Graham on the field in the red zone, but that mark rose to 123.6 when Graham wasn’t out there.
Chicago coach Matt Nagy will presumably try to use Graham as his poor man’s Travis Kelce, which might have made more sense five years ago. It’s yet another attempt by general manager Ryan Pace to find a useful tight end. Pace took Adam Shaheen in the middle of the second round in the 2017 draft, but after one year, the Bears gave Trey Burton a huge contract. Both Burton and Shaheen have struggled to produce and stay healthy for any length of time, which has now led Chicago to Graham. With Graham turning 34, I’m not optimistic that he’ll turn things around and justify nearly top-tier money, with $9 million in guarantees.
The deal: Three years, $45 million
The Giants badly needed help at cornerback after they moved on from Eli Apple and Janoris Jenkins in consecutive seasons. The idea of going into 2020 with struggling second-year corner DeAndre Baker as their No. 1 option must have terrified general manager Dave Gettleman, so it’s no surprise that he went into the free-agent market for a player he drafted when Carolina’s depth chart at corner was looking bare in the spring of 2016.
Panthers fans never seemed to warm to Bradberry as a star. In part, that was because of how he arrived in the league, given that he was drafted to replace Josh Norman after Gettleman released Carolina’s then-star corner from his franchise tag. Bradberry was typically solid but rarely made huge plays; he had eight interceptions in four seasons, and they generated a mere 38 return yards in the process. In a division in which the Panthers were stuck facing Michael Thomas, Julio Jones and Mike Evans six times per season, Bradberry was good enough to hold his own but not good enough to routinely shadow or shut down the best receivers in football. (To be clear: That’s an unrealistic expectation.)
Although the Panthers were a mess on defense in 2019, Bradberry was their best player. Quarterbacks targeting him didn’t have much fun, as he allowed a passer rating of just 73.1 on 89 targets as the closest defender in coverage. The only cornerback who was targeted more frequently than Bradberry while posting a stingier passer rating was Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, and stars such as Marlon Humphrey and Darius Slay were in a similar ballpark.
Heavy target rates are nothing new for Bradberry. From 2016 to 2019, Bradberry was targeted 380 times as the nearest defender in coverage, more than anybody else in football. You could interpret this as a sign that opposing quarterbacks weren’t afraid to target him, but the other guys just below Bradberry are considered to be among the best corners in football, including Jalen Ramsey (370 targets), Slay (342), Logan Ryan (340) and Gilmore (327).
With players typically choosing to take three-year deals in hopes of hitting the market again after the league negotiates new TV deals, Bradberry was able to come away with $32 million in guarantees and will still be able to hit the market again at 29. His $15 million average annual salary comes in just under Xavien Howard‘s deal, which is at the top of the market at $15.5 million, but this is a fair deal for both sides.
The deal: Three years, $21 million
The primary reserve for the Bears at inside linebacker the past four seasons, Kwiatkoski filled in for an injured Danny Trevathan in 2019 and proceeded to do a worthy impersonation of the former Broncos standout. Kwiatkoski did a little bit of everything as a pass defender, chipping in with an interception, three sacks and eight tackles for loss. Chicago’s defense improved its passer rating by nearly 10 points when Kwiatkowski was on the field, as opposed to Trevathan.
On the other hand, the Bears allowed 3.8 yards per carry with Trevathan on the field but 4.5 yards per carry when Kwiatkoski replaced him. Their first-down rate and successful play rate gaps were narrower, but as an undersized linebacker who was recruited to West Virginia as a safety, Kwiatkoski still profiles better against the pass than he does against the run. With the Raiders a mess at linebacker in a division in which they have to face Travis Kelce, Hunter Henry and Noah Fant, taking a shot on Kwiatkoski’s range makes some sense.
The deal: Three years, $18 million
I often argue that teams should pursue backup quarterbacks who look and play like their starters. There’s a little bit of Baker Mayfield in Keenum. Like Mayfield, Keenum had his success in college as an Air Raid quarterback. Like Mayfield, Keenum is undersized for the position at 6-foot-1. And like Mayfield, Keenum had a season that made the current Browns braintrust think they could go a long way with him at quarterback.
Of course, that one season — 2017 — is a huge outlier in Keenum’s career, when he took over for an injured Sam Bradford and pushed the Vikings all the way to the NFC Championship Game. In the ensuing two years in Denver and Washington, Keenum has been stuck in bad situations. The Broncos had a terrible offensive line, and Washington saw Keenum as a stopgap after ownership decided to draft Dwayne Haskins.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski was the quarterbacks coach in Minnesota with Keenum in 2017, so it’s no surprise that the Browns targeted Keenum to serve as the backup behind Mayfield. Keenum is just good enough to give the Browns a chance to win if Mayfield gets hurt and just uninteresting enough to avoid shaking Mayfield’s confidence. That’s exactly the line you want to tow with your backup quarterback.
49ers grade: B-
Colts grade: C+
This is a surprising move for both sides that could end up revealing one of the biggest offseason dominoes to come. With their sacrificing their first-round pick, it’s clear the Colts don’t plan to go all-in to trade up and grab a quarterback in the draft. Without that 13th pick around to draft a passer, it appears likely that the Colts will pursue their much-desired addition at quarterback in free agency, with Philip Rivers the subject of most rumors. It wouldn’t be shocking if this were followed by a Rivers contract in the hours or days to come.
In adding Buckner, the Colts are continuing to add pieces to a front four that general manager Chris Ballard has stocked with second-round picks. Indy was hoping low-cost veterans such as Margus Hunt and Denico Autry would serve as interior disrupters after impressing in 2018, but both players took a step backward last season, and the Colts released Hunt on Monday.
Even before the 49ers broke out on defense in 2019, Buckner emerged as a difference-maker on the interior. The former No. 7 overall pick racked up 38 knockdowns across his first two seasons, then broke out in a more traditional way with a 12-sack campaign in 2018. Buckner finished last season with only 7.5 sacks, but the Oregon product undoubtedly helped create opportunities for Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead on the edge.
Indirectly, the 49ers have chosen to retain Armstead over Buckner, with the 49ers closing in on a five-year deal for Armstead on Monday. In a vacuum, that would be a surprise; Buckner would be considered the better player and is certainly the better defender on the interior, while Armstead’s success last season came as a defensive end when Dee Ford was out of the lineup. Trading Buckner and re-signing Armstead likely would lock Armstead in as a full-time defensive tackle while the Niners rotate players such as D.J. Jones alongside him.
It isn’t quite that simple. It’s more like choosing Armstead and a first-round pick over Buckner and the likely third- or fourth-round compensatory pick the 49ers would have received if Armstead had left in free agency. The 49ers would be able to use the 13th pick to grab a replacement for Buckner, receiver Emmanuel Sanders or a long-term replacement for offensive tackle Joe Staley. More likely, they’ll use the pick to trade down and recoup some of the selections they dealt away for Ford and Sanders over the past season.
In addition, though we don’t have the terms of either deal, Armstead’s contract will be smaller than the massive deal Buckner appears to be getting from the Colts. Adam Schefter’s report said Buckner will make $21 million per season and be the second-highest-paid defensive tackle in the league behind Aaron Donald. Buckner was under contract for one more year, but the 49ers might very well have preferred to keep Armstead and avoid devoting that sort of market-crashing deal to a defensive lineman, especially with Ford already on a big contract and Bosa’s deal coming up in a couple of years.
At the same time, though, San Francisco doesn’t have a replacement for Buckner. Armstead is not the same sort of player and hasn’t been anywhere near as good for as long as Buckner has. It would have been reasonable for the Niners to let Armstead leave and sign a run-stopping defensive end to rotate with Ford on early downs at about half of where Armstead’s deal will eventually land. There just aren’t many human beings on the planet who can emulate Buckner. I wonder if the 49ers will go after someone such as Ndamukong Suh on a short-term deal to take over on the interior.
Meanwhile, as freaky as Buckner is, the Colts are giving up an enormous haul when you factor in the pick and Buckner’s new contract. Defensive tackle is a spot in which teams have been able to sign players such as Suh, Gerald McCoy and Malik Jackson to more modest contracts in free agency in recent years. Buckner is excellent, but he isn’t on that transcendent Donald level, and that’s where his deal is going to land after you factor in the opportunity cost of trading away a first-round pick.
The deal: Three years, $42 million
Regarded as the best right tackle on the market, Conklin is a free agent only because the Titans declined his fifth-year option during what was otherwise an excellent 2019 offseason from general manager Jon Robinson. You can understand what Robinson was thinking at the time. Conklin tore an ACL during the 2017 playoff loss to the Patriots, wasn’t ready to start the 2018 season and was limited during a frustrating campaign before he hit injured reserve because of another knee injury.
We obviously haven’t seen Conklin’s imaging, but you have to figure it isn’t great. Otherwise, it seems likely that the Titans would have taken the risk of picking up his option after drafting him with the No. 8 overall pick of the 2016 draft, given that teams typically retain even borderline starters. While the first-team All-Pro nod Conklin netted during his rookie season might have been generous, given how frequently the Titans handed him blocking help, he has been above average or better in three of his first four pro seasons.
Conklin is regarded as an excellent run-blocking right tackle, which shouldn’t be a surprise, given Tennessee’s run-heavy attack. His pass blocking is up for more debate. By Stats LLC’s numbers, Conklin allowed just three sacks last season, which would be an excellent figure for a starting tackle. ESPN’s pass block win rate analysis isn’t quite as sanguine, ranking him 59th among NFL linemen while blaming him for 10 sacks in 2019, a far less impressive number. I would put the real number somewhere in the middle.
What was interesting about Conklin’s 2019, at least as far as offensive line stances can be interesting, is that he responded to the knee injury by changing how he lined up before snaps. After lining up in a relatively traditional stance before the 2019 campaign, with a hand in the dirt and both feet facing the line of scrimmage, he came back with a totally different stance this past season. In 2019, Conklin commonly lined up standing nearly upright like a receiver, with one foot facing forward and the other facing the sideline at almost a 90-degree angle. Conklin made it work, but I wonder whether the Browns will try to get him to go back to his old stance.
The good news for Conklin is that he’ll have an excellent offensive line coach in Bill Callahan, who moved to Cleveland after his time with Washington. If Conklin can stay healthy, he’s also going to get another crack at free agency when things might be far more lucrative. As Schefter mentioned, we’re seeing many of the free agents today take shorter-term deals in the hope of cashing in on one more contract in 2022 or 2023, after the league presumably negotiates new TV deals and the salary cap rises dramatically.
With $30 million fully guaranteed, this is a straightforward deal for the Browns, whose analytics-friendly brain trust finally erased a mistake the regime made when Sashi Brown was in charge. Those Browns let star right tackle Mitchell Schwartz leave in free agency for what ended up as a bargain deal with the Chiefs to gain a compensatory pick. Former general manager John Dorsey signed Chris Hubbard to replace Schwartz, which went disastrously. (Schwartz, of course, just won his first Super Bowl with the Chiefs.)
Now, the Browns likely will cut Hubbard to install Conklin as their starting right tackle for the next couple of years. Getting Conklin without having to guarantee three years or top Trent Brown‘s average annual salary is a good bit of negotiating for new GM Andrew Berry. If the Browns can land a left tackle in the draft — they have pick No. 10 — they’ll come away from this offseason with everything that should have been on the shopping list for Baker Mayfield.
Falcons grade: C+
Ravens grade: B
While the Ravens were probably hoping for more from Hurst after former general manager Ozzie Newsome drafted him with the 25th pick of the 2018 draft, this is an exciting return for a guy who was likely third on Baltimore’s tight-end depth chart. The Ravens will come away with the 55th and 157th picks in April’s draft for Hurst and the 134th pick; when you consider David Johnson‘s contract, Baltimore almost definitely got more for Hurst than the Texans did for DeAndre Hopkins.
Hurst was a useful reserve to have in the fold behind Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle, but the Ravens will likely be able to find a feasible third tight end bouncing around free agency or somewhere in the draft. They now have extra second- and third-round picks in the draft, which is fun for a team coming off a 14-2 season and that has the reigning NFL MVP on a rookie deal.
We’re only two years removed from the Ravens drafting Hurst two rounds ahead of Andrews, and while Andrews has proven to be the more valuable player, Hurst still has time to prove he’s a starting-caliber tight end. He initially lost his job to Andrews in training camp in 2018 after suffering a stress fracture in his foot, and the two have been in an Andrews-heavy timeshare ever since. Andrews has played through injuries himself, which is the only reason Baltimore might have been hesitant to move on from Hurst without a significant pick being attached.
Hurst, unsurprisingly, has been more productive when Andrews has been on the sideline. Alongside Andrews on the field, Hurst has been targeted on just 16.7% of his routes and averaged a mere 1.3 yards per route run. Without Andrews in the huddle, though, he has been targeted on 23.3% of his routes and averaged 2.2 yards per route. Those marks would rank 10th and sixth in the league, respectively, among regular tight ends.
The Falcons are acquiring Hurst to serve as their replacement for Austin Hooper, who left for the Browns earlier in the day. Trading for Hurst makes some sense, given their cap restraints and that the South Carolina product is due less than $3.5 million combined over the next two years and would have a team-friendly fifth-year option available in 2023. If Hurst can be the guy we saw when Andrews wasn’t on the field, the Falcons should be able to continue on offense without skipping much of a beat.
I’d have two concerns. One is that Hurst was an over-aged draftee after spending two years in the baseball minor leagues with the Pirates. He was drafted as he was about to turn 25 and will already be 27 by the time the 2020 season starts. He’s actually more than a year older than Hooper, who just hit free agency. The track record of over-aged draft picks who don’t immediately turn into viable starters is not great.
The other problem is that the Falcons are devoting yet another one of the precious assets they have to fixing a problem on the offensive side of the ball. The defense has been a mess for several years now, and while it’s clear that they realize changes need to be made on that side of the ball, they’ve now devoted another high draft pick to an offensive fix. Atlanta had an extra second-round pick courtesy of the Mohamed Sanu trade, but devoting its first-round pick and both of their second-rounders to the defense wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world. As it is, the Falcons are taking a reasonable risk here to fill what was looming as a hole on their roster at tight end.
The deal: Three years, $30 million
The last first-round pick of the Rex Ryan era in Buffalo and one of the few players left on the roster from the Doug Whaley days, Lawson missed a chunk of his 2016 rookie year after undergoing shoulder surgery and never seemed to get right after returning. Coach Sean McDermott & Co. then kept Lawson in a part-time role for the next two seasons before declining the Clemson product’s fifth-year option. In what was expected to be a lame-duck year, Lawson emerged as a valuable rotation defender on the edge, racking up 6.5 sacks and 18 knockdowns while playing 47% of the defensive snaps under coordinator Leslie Frazier.
I’m not sure Lawson will ever hit the heights that were expected of him coming out of high school or college, but as a useful run defender on the edge who can occasionally get after the quarterback, he should be productive as a poor man’s Arik Armstead. He’ll make less than Armstead on this deal, but the Dolphins are still paying Lawson like they expect him to be a starter, given that this three-year deal includes $21 million guaranteed at signing and could max out at $36 million. It’s similar to the deal the Dolphins handed Ereck Flowers, but Lawson has a higher floor and a higher ceiling than the offensive lineman. He’ll be penciled in as a starting edge defender for the Dolphins, who rotate between three- and four-man fronts.
The deal: Four years, $22 million
In a move that might bring an end to Jason Witten‘s storied career with the Cowboys, Dallas decided to use its free time after franchising Dak Prescott to lock up a restricted free agent. Jarwin is a high-end athlete who moved around the formation at Oklahoma State before settling in as a backup tight end. Dallas mostly keeps Jarwin as an in-line option; offensive coordinator Kellen Moore lined Jarwin up outside only 9% of the time in 2019, while 23% of his snaps (and 39% of his targets) came out of the slot.
If Jarwin can successfully move around the formation and threaten teams as a move tight end, it would help the Cowboys overcome possibly losing Amari Cooper and give Prescott an extra weapon. This deal is relatively modest and could still make sense if Jarwin ends up sticking in a secondary role, but it suggests that the Cowboys think Jarwin is capable of more. At the very least, he can stretch opposing defenses up the seam in a way that the 37-year-old Witten can’t.
The deal: Two years, $27 million
Quietly, the Buccaneers had one of the best defenses in all of football last season. When you account for Jameis Winston throwing pick-sixes and placing defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ unit into impossible situations, the Bucs finished the year fifth in defensive DVOA, just ahead of the Bills, Vikings and Bears. Shaq Barrett having a career year was a huge part of that turnaround, but the Buccaneers also improved after Pierre-Paul returned from suffering a broken neck during the offseason.
Their splits with and without JPP on the field were significant. The Bucs allowed opposing quarterbacks to average just 6.3 yards per attempt and post a passer rating of 83.0 with Pierre-Paul on the field, which is like facing Mason Rudolph every week. Without JPP, those numbers rose to 7.7 yards per pass and a passer rating of 97.4, which is closer to Deshaun Watson.
Unsurprisingly, the Bucs were better at getting after the quarterback with Pierre-Paul on the field. Their sack rate rose from 5.0% without JPP to 7.6% with him, while their pressure rate jumped from 24.6% to 31.6%, a significant improvement. He chipped in with 8.5 sacks and 16 knockdowns, impressive numbers for a player who played only 10 games in 2019.
Pierre-Paul’s injury history is checkered. In addition to the broken neck and the famous fireworks disaster, JPP underwent back surgery early in his career with the Giants to fix a herniated disk. I’m not sure I would want to bet on the 31-year-old playing in the league five years from now, but this is a reasonable two-year pact for Tampa Bay, even if we assume most or all of it is practically guaranteed.
Cardinals grade: B+
Texans grade: F
Even by Bill O’Brien’s standards, the Cardinals and Texans made a stunning trade on Monday afternoon. Houston traded away arguably its second-most valuable player in star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, netting oft-injured running back David Johnson and a second-round pick in the process.
While I appreciate O’Brien’s thoughtfulness in giving us a fascinating swap to discuss in these sport-free times, I feel for Texans fans who just lost a franchise icon in the prime of his career. Here are my thoughts on what might be the biggest trade we’ll see this offseason.
The deal: Four years, $44 million
The highest-paid player at a position isn’t always the best player at the position. Heading into free agency, players like Kyle Rudolph, Trent Brown and Xavier Rhodes had the largest average annual salaries at their respective positions. Hooper is unquestionably a starting-caliber tight end, but is he close to the NFL’s best tight end? He has ranked seventh among tight ends in fantasy points each of the past two seasons, which included a 16-game stint in 2018 and a 13-game run in 2019.
A significant chunk of Hooper’s production over that two-year stretch has been a product of garbage time. Everyone has their own definition of what that concept means, but let’s look at drives that began with a sub-10% win expectancy for the offense. Hooper has 50 catches for 522 yards and five touchdowns in those situations over the past two years; no other tight end topped 35 catches or 414 receiving yards over that same time frame in similarly desperate situations. This isn’t unique to Hooper, as Julio Jones leads all wide receivers in the same category, but it’s the sort of production that plays better on paper than it does in reality.
It can be difficult to parse out the impact of an individual blocker, but it doesn’t appear that Hooper has made a big difference in that category for the Falcons. Over the past two years, the Falcons have averaged 4.11 yards per carry with him on the field … and an identical 4.11 yards per carry with him on the sideline or inactive. Their first-down rate ticks up slightly, going from 24.1% with Hooper on the field to 22.5% without him.
On the other hand, the Falcons have been a much more efficient passing attack with Hooper on the field. Since 2018, Matt Ryan has posted a passer rating of 105.5 and a QBR of 68.8 with his No. 1 tight end on the field. Those marks have fallen to 86.7 and 49.8, respectively, without him in the lineup.
What was interesting about Hooper’s breakout 2019 season was just how uncommon his usage rate was for a tight end. More than 50% of his receptions and receiving yards came outside of the numbers last season. Among tight ends with at least 35 catches, only three other players fit that bill: Jack Doyle and quasi-wide receivers Mike Gesicki and Jimmy Graham. Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter loved getting the ball to Hooper in the flat, and while I don’t think there’s anything stopping Hooper from going over the middle — his splits were far more typical in 2018 — he’ll likely have a more common usage pattern in Cleveland.
New Browns coach Kevin Stefanski used plenty of multiple-tight-end sets during his lone full season as the offensive coordinator with the Vikings. Minnesota went with two or more tight ends on more than 56% of its offensive snaps, the second-highest rate in football. It was in part a way to substitute for the absence of Adam Thielen, who played only 43% of the offensive snaps while struggling with a hamstring injury. Hooper’s signing could serve as a way to account for the absence of Jarvis Landry, who is questionable for Week 1 after undergoing hip surgery in February. Hooper should play the Rudolph role in Stefanski’s offense, with David Njoku getting his final shot with the new Cleveland regime to serve as the Irv Smith Jr.
Hooper is now getting paid like a superstar tight end. In reality, he has been something closer to a safe pair of hands. He hasn’t shown any extraordinary ability to get downfield or make things happen after the catch; while Falcons fans will remember his 88-yard catch-and-run against a blown coverage in Week 1 of 2017, he has ranked 19th in air yards per attempt and 22nd in yards after catch over the past two seasons.
Unsurprisingly given the demand for tight end talent around the league and a relatively thin pool of talent in free agency and April’s draft, Hooper’s new deal resets what had been a stagnant tight end market. Graham had previously set the mark by averaging $10 million per season on both of his deals with the Saints and Packers, but Hooper becomes the first tight end to top $10 million per year on a multiseason pact. The Browns are paying for game-changing production, but they’re more likely to get something closer to solid, steady work.
The deal: Three years, $30 million
What a difference a year makes! After flaming out in spectacular fashion with the Giants and struggling with the Jaguars, Flowers got what was likely going to be his last chance to make an NFL impression with Washington. Moving inside to guard, he put together a solid if unspectacular full season at his new position. Flowers’ sack and penalty numbers were both down, and he finished right next to former teammate Brandon Scherff in ESPN’s pass block win rate metric at 63rd.
Flowers turned his NFL career around. Is he likely to keep that up? We can’t be sure. For one, he spent 2019 learning underneath excellent offensive line coach Bill Callahan, who has a long track record of getting the most out of his charges. Callahan is now in Cleveland, and Flowers’ new offensive line coach is Steve Marshall, who struggled to develop linemen during his time with the Jets. Flowers’ indifference toward preparation during his time with the Giants was well-known; he can’t go back to his old habits now that he has signed a multiyear deal with nearly $20 million guaranteed.
The Dolphins desperately need help just about everywhere along their offensive line, which is why I can’t be enormously critical of this deal. Miami needed to add a minimum of three new starters this offseason, if not four, and Flowers will be the first of the bunch. I wonder if the team will try him out at left tackle given the need there, though the best scenario for Flowers would be to remain at guard. The Dolphins see upside here, and this deal will be fine if the Flowers from 2019 shows up and does his job, but this is a lot of guaranteed money for a player who has one year of competent play under a great coach across five pro seasons.
The deal: Two years, $66 million
If 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was licking his chops and waiting for his former Washington protégé to hit the market next offseason, the defending NFC champion coach will have to do whatever the opposite of licking his chops is for a couple of more seasons. To help create cap space for their star-laden roster, the Vikings essentially committed themselves to Cousins through the 2022 season.
The structure of this deal is what keeps the Vikings in the Cousins business. As is the case with the Ryan Tannehill extension, Cousins has his 2020 and 2021 base salaries guaranteed now, while his 2022 base salary of $35 million becomes fully guaranteed at the start of next season. The Vikings could theoretically cut Cousins next spring, but they would still owe him $56 million in guaranteed base salaries over the next two seasons. The Antonio Brown trade reset our expectations of what teams are willing to absorb in terms of dead money, but Minnesota almost certainly isn’t cutting Cousins.
It’s unclear whether Cousins will have a no-trade clause, as he did with his first contract. The Vikings could theoretically trade him without incurring a significant dead cap figure, at least in 2022, but Minnesota fans should prepare for three more years with him on their roster. In the end, he will take home $153 million over five years, which is a fine riposte to a Washington franchise that didn’t think he was worth anything close to that.
This contract essentially keeps Cousins in the same ballpark we saw when he signed his first deal with the Vikings. At this point, it seems pretty clear that few people regard Cousins as a top-five quarterback, even if he’s getting top-five money. It’s also clear that he’s good enough for the Vikings to win with, especially when they ramped up their play-action usage and installed a Shanahan-style rushing attack under Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak last season. Stefanski is now in Cleveland, so Kubiak will take over as the coordinator. This deal locks in a high floor for the Vikings, even if the ceiling isn’t what you would hope for with this sort of money and guarantee. That’s about an average deal.
The deal: Two years, $11 million
While I’m a little skeptical of the Christian Kirksey deal given positional scarcity, buying relatively low on Wagner is a reasonable Plan B if the Packers plan on letting Bryan Bulaga leave. Our Field Yates reported that this deal contains a $3.5 million signing bonus, and if there’s nothing guaranteed after Year 1, this is a low-cost addition given the lack of tackles on the market and the increasing comfort teams have with giving right tackles top-tier money.
Wagner is three years removed from getting what was the market-setting deal for right tackles at five years and $47.5 million from the Lions. At that price, Wagner disappointed the Lions. Injuries impacted his play, but after allowing seven sacks across four seasons with the Ravens, Wagner allowed six sacks in 2017 and 6.5 sacks in 2018. He was 107th in ESPN’s pass block win rate statistic, which credited the 30-year-old with 10 sacks allowed.
At this price tag, though, Wagner only needs to be a passable starting tackle or an above-average swing option to justify his deal. The Packers have three linemen for two guard spots with Elgton Jenkins, Lane Taylor and Billy Turner; I would expect Turner and Wagner to compete for the right tackle job in camp. Even given his decline in Detroit, Wagner should be the better option.
The deal: Two years, $13 million
Brian Gutekunst signaled his plans to stay active in free agency for the third consecutive year as Packers general manager. His moves on offense (Jimmy Graham, Billy Turner) have been a mess, while the signings he made to shore up the defense (Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos) looked brilliant until the NFC Championship Game. The Packers finished the year 15th in defensive DVOA and 23rd against the run, so after the 49ers gashed them for 285 rushing yards and four touchdowns, you would figure Gutekunst would target somebody who could help stop the league’s best rushing attacks.
When he’s healthy, Kirksey is capable of making a difference there. Over the past two years, the Browns were better with their starting linebacker in the lineup than they were without him. Cleveland allowed 4.6 yards per carry and a 25.9% first-down rate over that time frame with Kirksey on the field. Without him, they allowed 4.9 yards per carry and a 27.9% first-down rate. Of course, even that 4.6 yards per carry mark isn’t exactly thrilling, and the success rate by expected points added (EPA) for Kirksey was virtually identical. The Browns allowed successful runs 56% of the time with him on the field and 55.7% of the time without him.
Injuries are an even bigger concern, given that he missed 23 games over the past two seasons with hamstring and pectoral injuries. Kirksey is listed at 235 pounds but might be best as a 4-3 weakside linebacker. The Packers are in a 3-4 front when they go with their base defense, which is where they’re hoping Kirksey will make a difference. He’ll be moving to play inside linebacker in that scheme, and while he was successful in a 3-4 base during his healthier years with the Browns, there are reasonable concerns that his body might struggle to hold up after the injuries of 2018 and 2019.
The reality is also that teams typically find early-down linebackers available for relatively cheap without having to commit $8 million per year, as the Packers did to sign Kirksey before free agency. A healthy, productive Kirksey is probably worth about this much, and we have to see how much of this deal is guaranteed, but this seems like a problem the Packers could have waited to fill with a post-June 1 cut or a draft pick. It’s money I would have rather used to keep around offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga.
UPDATE: This deal actually came in as a two-year, $13 million pact with just a $4 million signing bonus guaranteed at the time of signing; I like it more for the Packers under those circumstances and have adjusted the grade.
The deal: Two years, $23 million
While there were rumors that one of the organizations stocked with former Patriots coaches and executives would make a run at McCourty, the presence of twin brother Jason and coach Bill Belichick made it more likely that the 10-year veteran would return back to his only professional home. The two-time Pro Bowler was one of the best safeties in football a year ago, picking off five passes for the first time since 2012 while allowing a passer rating of just 50.6 as the nearest defender in coverage. This is hardly top-of-the-market money for a safety, so while McCourty is likely to have most or all of this deal guaranteed up front, it’s a logical win-win for both sides.
One other subtle thing about this deal is the structure. McCourty was New England’s second-most-pressing free agent behind Tom Brady and the only other player the team was likely to consider signing to a deal north of $10 million per year. If the Pats were desperately concerned about their cap space, they would have given McCourty a longer deal with a big signing bonus to try to create short-term cap room. By handing him a two-year deal without any extraneous years, it’s possible the Patriots are confident no massive contract from another team is coming down the pike for Brady.
The deal: Three years, $36 million
Roby was impressive in a bounce-back season for the Texans last year. Playing primarily in the slot, he was Houston’s best cornerback on either side of his midseason hamstring ailment. The injury cost him five games, but he came back by busting through N’Keal Harry for a pick-six of Tom Brady in Houston’s 28-22 win over the Patriots on Dec. 1. A relatively abysmal Texans pass defense declined by 12.2 points of passer rating and 14.5 points of Total QBR with Roby sidelined last season. Sportradar charting suggests Roby went from allowing a passer rating of 113.8 in his final year with the Broncos down to a 79.9 mark in his debut with the Texans. That’s like going from Lamar Jackson to Kyle Allen.
If we expect the Texans to keep Roby in the slot, this would be a record deal for a slot corner, after guys like Bryce Callahan, Tavon Young and Justin Coleman signed deals with average annual salaries between $7 million and $9 million a year ago. Roby hitting $12 million per year is a huge leap from that group, and the Texans are likely to be locked into Lonnie Johnson Jr. and Gareon Conley as their outside corners in 2020, which would keep Roby inside. I’d feel better if this had come in somewhere closer to $30 million, but I suspect it might look like a better contract once we see the rest of the cornerback market play out in the days to come.
The deal: Two years, $33 million
Castonzo has been one of the best left tackles in football over the past two seasons, which is why the Colts must have been terrified while he considered retirement this offseason. The 31-year-old eventually decided to return, and the Colts were able to bring back what would have been the best left tackle on the market before the legal tampering period opened by signing Castonzo to a two-year deal.
This is just about top-of-the-line tackle money, albeit on a two-year deal. The only tackles with larger average annual salaries are Trent Brown and Lane Johnson, whose big-money extension was really a cap-stretching exercise with mostly unguaranteed salaries that wouldn’t even start kicking in until 2026. Getting Castonzo under contract at that price is an easy move for the Colts and their oodles of cap room to swallow.
Where this move could really help, though, is in creating flexibility for Indianapolis on draft day. Without Castonzo, it almost surely would have needed to use the 13th pick on a left tackle. Now, while the team could still use its first-rounder on an eventual replacement for Castonzo, it can go best player available with the selection. General manager Chris Ballard also has the 34th and 44th picks in Round 2, which could be enough for the Colts to move up from 13 if they’re in love with one of the non-Joe Burrow quarterbacks in this year’s draft. If the Colts eventually end up with Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert, you’ll likely have the Castonzo deal to thank.
Sunday, March 15
The deal: Four years, $118 million
I’m not sure whether Tannehill voted in favor of the new CBA, but if we’re looking for players who benefited from the league and its players coming to terms on a new agreement, he is the first and likely the most significant of the offseason so far. With the Titans limited to one franchise or transition tag in their attempts to keep Tannehill and running back Derrick Henry, they were forced to make a sweetheart deal to make sure one of the two signed a contract before the franchise deadline. With Henry the platonic ideal of a franchise tag candidate, it was always more likely that the Titans would lock up Tannehill before Monday’s deadline.
The key to this deal is the structure. Tannehill has the first two years of his deal guaranteed, which wasn’t a surprise. It would have taken a small miracle to get him under contract on a long-term deal with just one guaranteed season. The real key is that third season. He has a $29 million base salary in 2022, which is guaranteed now for injury and becomes fully guaranteed in March 2021.
In other words, this is either a one-year deal for $62 million or a three-year deal for $91 million. That’s a staggering turnaround for Tannehill. This time last year, the Dolphins had to pay $5 million of a $7 million restructured deal for him just to get the Titans to attach a fourth-round pick in return. Now, he has set a record for practically guaranteed new money, at $91 million, topping the $90 million Russell Wilson got in his extension with the Seahawks.
If the Tannehill who shocked everyone in 2019 returns and shows up for the Titans in the years to come, this will be a fair deal. In the big picture, though, it’s tough to count on that happening. For one, he missed 24 games in his final three seasons with the Dolphins, thanks to a pair of a torn ACLs and a shoulder injury. He hadn’t missed a game before 2015 and was healthy throughout his 10-game starting run with the Titans last season, but any sort of injury could make this a catastrophic deal for Tennessee.
Tannehill continued to take a gaudy sack rate for the Titans last season, going down 9.8% of the time, which doesn’t help his chances of staying healthy. He posted the league’s best QBR when unpressured but dropped all the way to 30th in QBR when defenses got pressure. That drop-off is concerning when you consider that this deal makes it even more likely that the Titans will lose starting right tackle Jack Conklin in free agency.
A healthy Tannehill was better than people remember for the Dolphins, but there was nothing in his track record to suggest that he was going to lead all passers in completion percentage, yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt and passer rating. In 2019, he led all passers in yards per attempt by a full yard and posted the eighth-best era-adjusted yards per attempt since the merger. He posted the best passer rating of any quarterback on play-action in the past 10 years, with a nearly perfect mark of 147.3.
When you strip out screens, Tannehill threw the second-longest average pass of the past 10 years (9.7 air yards per throw) and averaged the 14th-most yards per completion (14.2) of any quarterback in that time frame. The marks ahead of him in that category include dramatic, unsustainable partial campaigns from quarterbacks such as Nick Foles, Tim Tebow and Robert Griffin. Tannehill is better than those guys, but we saw something close to a 95th-percentile season from a guy who the league (Tennessee included) thought was a backup 12 months ago.
The most likely outcome of this deal is that the Titans get something closer to the guy who didn’t move the needle in Miami, rather than the quarterback who blazed through the league for most of 2020, and that isn’t good value. This is especially true when you consider Tennessee’s espoused offensive philosophy in the context of Henry. If this is a team that’s really built around Henry and play-action, why are you paying your quarterback what amounts to top-five money and locking him up for three years? I’m not sure the Titans had a better option, but it’s easier to imagine this deal turning into a painful one for Tennessee than it is to imagine Tannehill keeping up his magical 2019 for three more seasons.
Jaguars grade: C
Ravens grade: B+
That dominant 2017 Jaguars defense is down to Abry Jones, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue, who wants to be traded. You can’t really fault the Jaguars for dumping too much salary, given that they appear to be far from competing, and general manager Dave Caldwell has created much-needed cap space by moving on from Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Marcell Dareus, but what’s left to be excited about here? The Jaguars are in yet another full-on rebuild, and though they parted ways with Tom Coughlin, Caldwell was the one who made the vast majority of the disappointing first-round picks and free-agent signings from the most recent rebuild. Even given that this move makes sense in the short term, are there reasons to be optimistic about the rebuild to come?
On the other hand, if you want to look at an organization that seems to get things right, look at what the Ravens did to make this trade happen. They developed kicker Kaare Vedvik last summer behind Justin Tucker, even though there was no chance of Vedvik winning the starting job. They successfully convinced the Vikings to send a fifth-round pick to acquire Vedvik, who didn’t make the roster and then cost the Jets a win in Week 1. The Ravens then sent that fifth-round pick to the Jaguars to acquire Campbell. One team spends big to prop up Blake Bortles and can’t hold on to the few players it gets right. The other turns a backup kicker into a bona fide defensive star.
The 33-year-old Campbell posted his lowest sack total since 2012 last season, but his 25 knockdowns point toward his making a more significant impact than that raw sack total. Opposing passers improved their ratings by more than 14 points when Campbell was on the sideline. The Jags also allowed a disappointing 4.9 yards per carry with Campbell on the field, but that mark rose to a ridiculous 5.8 yards per rush without him in the lineup.
His arrival makes it likely that the Ravens will move on from underrated nose tackle Michael Pierce, who should command a significant deal in free agency. The Ravens will have to decide whether they want to make Brandon Williams a full-time nose tackle in Pierce’s absence or acquire another player, but both Campbell and Williams have the versatility to play different roles and techniques within Baltimore’s defensive fronts. With the Ravens using five or more defensive backs nearly 90% of the time last season, I suspect we’ll see more four-man fronts with Campbell serving as a devastating interior rusher.
Baltimore will restructure the final year of Campbell’s deal as part of an extension to try to reduce his $15 million cap hit; I would figure they’ll give him a second guaranteed year as part of this deal. Even given that the Jaguars weren’t going anywhere with Campbell and needed to create cap room, they needed to get more than a late fifth-round selection for a true difference-maker on defense. This is an easy win for the Ravens and yet another reason to think the Jags are years away from competing for another playoff berth.
Tuesday, March 10
The deal: Four years, $17.7 million
On scoring plays, John Christian Ka’iminoeauloameka’ikeokekumupa’a Fairbairn hasn’t been anything special for the Texans. Over the past three years, he has hit 83.7% of his field goals, which ranks 22nd in the NFL. By Football Outsiders’ advanced stats, he has been worth -3.4 points on field goals and extra points during his three-year career, which isn’t exactly the sort of performance you would want to lock up and give $9 million fully guaranteed.
Where Fairbairn has made an impact, though, is on kickoffs. The Texans have generated 12.7 points of field position on kickoffs over the past three years, the fourth-best mark in the league. Some of that comes down to coverage work, but Fairbairn was also excellent on kickoffs at the college level. Kickoff value means less than it used to in the NFL because it’s so easy to generate touchbacks, which makes Fairbairn less valuable, but the kickoff performance likely explains why the Texans are giving Fairbairn upper-echelon kicker money to stick around.
Monday, March 9
The deal: One year, $6 million
Unplayable for stretches last season, Norman struggled throughout his time in Washington and hasn’t been an above-average corner since his breakout season with the Panthers in 2015. His defensive coordinator there was current Bills coach Sean McDermott, and while Norman’s breakup with Carolina wasn’t pretty, the Bills are unsurprisingly betting that their culture and coaching will be able to unlock something closer to the Norman who was a first-team All-Pro that season.
Incentives can get this deal up to $8 million, but the guarantee number could move this grade around. Already at age 32, there’s a chance that Norman is toast and doesn’t make the Buffalo roster out of camp, which would be a lot easier to swallow on a $1 million guarantee than it would on something closer to the full $6 million. Assuming the true guarantee comes in somewhere between those two figures, Norman is a very reasonable flier for general manager Brandon Beane to take on a one-year deal. Norman will compete with Levi Wallace for the starting job on the outside across from superstar corner Tre’Davious White.
Friday, March 6
The deal: Four years, $24.5 million
The Chargers were a fundamentally better offense in 2019 with Ekeler on the field as opposed to Melvin Gordon, who now seems sure to leave Los Angeles in free agency. The Chargers were more efficient both running and receiving with Ekeler in the lineup. By expected points added on a per-play basis, they were something close to the Packers as the ninth-best offense in football with Ekeler on the field. With Gordon, they were closer to the Bills in 23rd.
Ekeler, who went undrafted in 2017, had been a super-efficient runner in 2017 and 2018, but he wasn’t particularly efficient in 2019. The Western State product made up for that by adding gobs of value in the receiving game, where he averaged 10.8 yards per reception and came within 7 yards of a 1,000-yard season. In terms of value added as a receiving back, Ekeler and Christian McCaffrey were in a pack of their own.
I’m still not sure whether Ekeler can handle 15 carries per game, but he can be valuable in his current role without getting that sort of rushing workload. I’m wary of just about any significant running back contract, but Ekeler is going to get about half of what Alvin Kamara gets from the Saints this summer, and he’s far closer to Kamara in terms of ability than the financial difference will indicate. Philip Rivers‘ instincts and propensity for sniffing out pressure pre-snap likely netted Ekeler a couple of his big plays last season, but he doesn’t need to hit 1,550 yards from scrimmage again to return value on this deal.
Wednesday, March 4
Chargers grade: B
Panthers grade: C-
This one’s curious from the Panthers’ perspective. Last year, Carolina traded away a third-round pick to move up in the second round to draft Greg Little, who seemed likely to take over as the team’s left tackle of the future. Injuries hit Little and most of the Panthers’ offense in 2019, but after just four games, it looks like those plans have changed. Okung was acquired to take over at left tackle, and with Taylor Moton entrenched at right tackle, Little could at least temporarily move inside or spend 2020 as the swing tackle when he badly needs NFL reps.
It would be one thing if the Panthers were expected to contend for a Super Bowl in 2020 or if Okung was going to lock down the position for years to come, but this team is in the middle of a rebuild under new coach Matt Rhule, and Okung has one year left on his deal. The widely respected former Seahawks tackle struggled through a wasted season in 2019, missing 10 games with a pulmonary embolism and a groin injury. A healthy Okung was a difference-maker for the Chargers in 2018, but the 31-year-old is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.
I could see it if the Panthers just had to give up a late-round pick for Okung, but trading away a legitimately good interior lineman in Turner makes this difficult to swallow, especially considering how Rhule wants to build a physical team in Carolina. Turner is 5 years younger than Okung, has made it to five straight Pro Bowls and has two years with about $20.4 million in non-guaranteed money left on his extension. He immediately steps in for the Chargers at right guard and gives them an excellent run-blocker as they move to more of a run-first approach with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback (for now).
What happens next for the Chargers will be interesting. Most 2020 mock drafts have them drafting a quarterback with the sixth overall pick, but if they go out and add a passer in free agency, they should be able to come away with either Tristan Wirfs or Mekhi Becton to fill in for Okung on the blind side. Right tackle is still a problem, but Los Angeles could suddenly have an imposing line to protect Taylor — or whoever else ends up under center — in 2020.
Tuesday, March 3
Broncos grade: C+
Jaguars grade: C+
A little over two years ago, the Jacksonville defense carried Blake Bortles & Co. all the way to a fourth-quarter lead against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game before a conservative offense and a terrible call against Myles Jack left the Jags just short of the Super Bowl. With Bouye leaving for Denver, seven of the 11 defensive starters and all five of the primary defensive backs on what was the league’s best defense have left town. If pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who is likely to receive a franchise tag, gets his wish, that number will soon be eight.
Bouye’s play has slipped since that impressive 2017 season, but this is a salary dump for a Jags team that desperately needed cap space. He was sacrificed because virtually every move Jacksonville made after its AFC championship run turned out to be a disaster. Free-agent additions Nick Foles and Andrew Norwell got hurt and didn’t live up to expectations. The team foolishly let Allen Robinson go and chose to pay Marqise Lee, Allen Hurns and Donte Moncrief instead. A decision to re-sign Bortles quickly proved to be a mistake. The team’s toxic culture under Tom Coughlin ran off several key players. A Super Bowl appearance might have smoothed over some of the flaws, but it’s depressing to think about how exciting the Jags looked so recently and how far they feel from that team now.
Corner isn’t really a position of strength for the Jags anymore, and they probably would have kept Bouye if they were in better cap shape, but getting a meaningful pick for a player they would have likely cut is a small victory. At the same time, the Broncos are sending the fourth-round pick they got from the 49ers to acquire Bouye, which means Jacksonville will be getting one of the last picks in the round.
Bouye is nominally coming over to replace Chris Harris Jr., and when Bouye has been good, he has been a reasonable facsimile of the longtime Broncos standout. The difference between the two has been consistency. Harris has consistently been a good-to-great cornerback; Bouye hasn’t. After some early success, the Texans buried the undrafted free agent on their depth chart and only begrudgingly pushed him into the starting lineup once first-rounder Kevin Johnson got hurt in 2016. Bouye was a revelation in the slot and played every bit as well as Jalen Ramsey did in 2017, but he took a step backward in 2018 and a larger step in that direction last season. According to NFL Next Gen Stats data, Bouye allowed a passer rating of 104.4 as the closest defender in coverage in 2019 with opposing quarterbacks completing 67.4% of their passes against him.
Denver coach Vic Fangio has been able to turn around veteran cornerbacks in the past, with guys like Carlos Rogers and Kyle Fuller reaching new heights. The Broncos have Bouye on what amounts to a two-year, $27 million deal with no remaining guaranteed money. That’s a lot in a cornerback market where the top salary is currently somewhere around $14 million, but it might not seem quite as significant once guys like Darius Slay get paid this offseason.
Monday, Feb. 17
The deal: Three years, $43.8 million
Humphries parlayed his first healthy, productive season with the Cardinals into a player-friendly extension. The former first-round pick missed 37 games over his first four years, but he started all 16 games on the left side last season and allowed just two sacks by Stats LLC’s measures. Humphries did commit 13 penalties, but the Cardinals were clearly impressed. This three-year deal includes $29 million in guaranteed money over the first two seasons and would allow him to hit the free-agent market again before turning 30, both of which are pluses given his relatively limited history of success.
From the Cardinals’ perspective, you can understand why they would prefer to take the plunge with a lineman they know. The free-agent market at left tackle is limited to veterans such as Jason Peters and Greg Robinson, each of whom have their own flaws. Arizona could be in line to draft a tackle with the No. 8 overall pick in April’s draft, but by signing Humphries, it is free to use that pick on defensive help or to add another weapon at receiver.
The Cardinals should have been able to get a fourth non-guaranteed year on this deal, and I have reservations that Humphries will stay healthy in 2020 and 2021, but unless they thought a franchise left tackle was going to fall to them at No. 8, signing him was likely the best of a few bad options.
Monday, Feb. 10
The deal: Three years, $16 million
While it was lost in the shuffle amid the breakout season of Lamar Jackson and the return to form of Marcus Peters, Clark’s ascension into the starting lineup for an injured Tony Jefferson was a stabilizing factor for a struggling Ravens defense. An undersized but willing box safety, Clark took over the green-dot helmet from Jefferson and Patrick Onwuasor and served as a key defensive communicator on the field for coordinator Don Martindale. Clark was also a frequent blitzer for the Ravens, although he finished the year with only one sack and three quarterback knockdowns. In another era, Clark would have realistically been classified as a linebacker by his heat map:
Chuck Clark heat map pic.twitter.com/YnrGHjdtr4
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) March 9, 2020
After cutting Jefferson, signing Clark and finishing up Jimmy Smith‘s deal, the Ravens have locked in their starting five defensive backs for 2020 with Clark and Earl Thomas at safety and Peters, Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young at corner. This is a modest deal for a starting safety, but it’s telling that the Ravens were aggressive in locking up Clark in February as opposed to letting the Virginia Tech product play out the final year of his rookie deal. Clark probably won’t push for Pro Bowl consideration, but he should settle in as a solid starter again in 2020.
Wednesday, Jan. 15
The deal: One year, $11 million
This is tough to grade because the Cardinals are simply going to keep paying the greatest player in franchise history for as long as he’s willing to play. Fitzgerald is worth more to Arizona than he’s worth to any other team, but this is a significant one-year outlay for a team that could desperately use $11 million to spend on filling out the rest of its roster. Nearly 89% of Fitz’s receiving yards came out of the slot last season, and while he’s a security blanket for Kyler Murray, I would much prefer to see Christian Kirk or someone more explosive there in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense.
After attracting heavy usage from 2015-17, the future Hall of Famer basically reproduced his 2018 numbers in 2019. Disconcertingly, he produced 100-yard games in Week 1 and Week 2 before averaging just under 42 receiving yards per game over the remainder of the season. Fitzgerald is easy to root for and should remain an institution in Arizona, but as a receiver who profiles to rack up somewhere around 10 yards per catch and 45 yards per game, this deal doesn’t push the Cardinals toward contention.