Yesterday marked one month since the beginning of the 2016 free agency period for the National Football League. While the debate over whether building through the draft or free agency is the better move, teams across the country dropped hundreds of millions of dollars on players that they hope will make their teams better in the coming seasons. Whether the signings pan out or not, of course, remains to be seen; here, I attempt to bring some semblance of organization to a month filled with transactions and unexpected drama while analyzing some of the most impactful moves so far this off-season.
Malik Jackson to Jaguars- 6 years, $90 million
Brock Osweiler to Texans- 4 years, $72 million
Two of the three most expensive of this year’s free agent signings are former Denver Broncos. The first, Jackson, is a true three-down defensive tackle that is capable of providing an effective pass rush while staying solid against the run. There are some minor worries about his motivation, considering that he’s admitted that his decision to leave the defending champs for the lowly Jags was entirely due to money, and also about his consistency- the most amount of snaps per game he played before last season was 55%- but if the Tennessee grad lives up to his potential, Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell couldn’t have picked a better player to spend a lot of his cap space on.
The second of the two ex-champs, Brock Osweiler, was a surprise defection from the champions- he was slated to be the full-time starter after the retirement of the legendary Peyton Manning. However, perhaps slighted by the team’s decision to bench him in favor of the aging Manning once the postseason started, Osweiler moved on to a new challenge in Houston. The pressure on head coach Bill O’Brien to get him to produce will be heavy, considering the price tag, and I think that it will be money well spent- Osweiler is a freak athlete with a strong arm, and with great weapons like Lamar Miller and DeAndre Hopkins at his disposal, I expect the QB to develop into the greatest gunslinger in the Texans’ brief history.
Oliver Vernon to Giants- 5 years, $85 million
Janoris Jenkins to Giants- 5 years, $62.5 million
This was the first off-season in recent memory that the Giants had a lot of cap room to play around with, and they certainly filled it up fast by attempting to address their porous defense, which finished last in the league in yards allowed last season. To help their pass rush, they took Vernon from Miami with a contract that has more guaranteed money than JJ Watt’s. Spending a lot on the former Dolphin wasn’t wrong, because he is one of the game’s most consistent pass rushers, and at 25, he has yet to enter the prime of his career, so he is due to improve on his 7-sacks-a-year average. However, to make a guy that may turn out to be a player that’s on the field in mostly passing situations one of the highest paid defensive lineman in the league seems a bit excessive. I don’t doubt that Vernon will produce, but I can’t see him providing as much as his contract warrants he should.
Sadly for New York, I think that their other major signing, Jenkins, will give the team another defender that won’t live up to the expectations brought on by his high salary. The former Rams cornerback is a playmaker, no doubt- since being drafted in 2012, his 34 passes defended is good for 7th most in the league, and his 10 interceptions ranked 12th– but his aggressiveness has also left him prone to big plays, something the G-Men were all too familiar with last season. Putting him opposite another aggressive corner in Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie does not serve to highlight Jenkins’ strengths, and will he could help improve the Giants’ secondary, he’s just as likely to leave them just as bad as last year.
Kelechi Osemele to Raiders- 5 years, $58.5 million
Russell Okung to Broncos- 5 years, $53 million
Often unheralded in the national media, offensive lineman got in on the spending fest this off-season, too. The OL that got the most money was Osemele, who left Baltimore for Oakland to get a deal that will see him receive an average salary of just less than $10 million a year. I think this is a brilliant signing for the Raiders- Osemele was overshadowed by his All-Pro teammate, left guard Marshall Yanda, but the youngster was arguably the Ravens’ best offensive lineman last season. He gave up only one sack at left guard before finishing the final four games of the season with a seamless transition to left tackle. This versatility, combined with the 26 year-old’s immense strength and strong run blocking ability, make him, in my opinion, one of the best acquisitions of this off-season.
When I first saw the Russell Okung signing, I thought it made little sense at first- Okung was a very solid left tackle for his old employers, the Seattle Seahawks, but it seemed as if his ability had waned in recent years, and that some of that waning could be attributed to the injuries that the former Oklahoma State star has suffered with recently. He is definitely better than the man he was slated to replace, Ryan Clady, but with Clady and his $9.5 million salary still on the books, I just didn’t think signing Okung was necessary, especially considering all the free agents that Denver could have put money towards. However, with Clady now a New York Jet, Okung looks like a solid pickup for the defending champs- for slightly more money than they would have paid Clady, they’ll get far better production.
Damon Harrison to Giants- 5 years, $46.25 million
Kelvin Beachum to Jaguars- 5 years, $45 million
These two are, perhaps, the most intriguing signings of the 2016 off-season. The first of them, Harrison, is leaving the Jets for the Giants in a deal that is sure to thrill the former undrafted free agent. Since becoming a starter back in 2013, Harrison has been one of the best defensive tackles in the business, picking up 72 tackles and an All-Pro selection by Pro Football Focus. The problem with Harrison is that at 350 pounds, he is only a two-down player, and a base salary of $9.25 million is a little steep for someone in his position. Unlike some experts, though, I feel like Harrison’s impact to help improve the Giants’ 24th ranked defense will help make his high salary extremely worth it; the Jets will regret letting him go to their very close rivals.
Beachum, meanwhile, got paid a ton of money by the Jaguars and might not even be guaranteed a starting spot along their o-line. The incumbent starter at left tackle, former first round pick Luke Joeckel, has struggled, and Beachum was brought in, effectively, to give him competition for the spot. The way his contract is structured- Beachum will get paid a base salary of $4.5 million in his first year before a sharp increase in years 2 through 5- is ideal for the Jags, but his signing is puzzling at best and an extremely high risk at worst. If Joeckel retains his spot, the Jaguars spent $4.5 million on a lineman that will barely play. If Beachum wins the job but doesn’t play well, they might be forced to move on from both him and Joeckel, who will surely be offended at being benched. If Beachum wins the job and plays well, the team will essentially have to own up to the fact that they messed up by picking Joeckel so early in the draft.
Other Big Signings:
Alex Mack to Falcons- 5 years, $45 million
Brandon Brooks to Eagles- 5 years, $40 million
Sean Smith to Raiders- 4 years, $38 million
Bruce Irvin to Raiders- 4 years, $37 million
Marvin Jones to Lions- 4 years, $40 million
Coby Fleener to Saints- 3 years, $36 million
Eric Weddle to Ravens- 4 years, $26 million
I’m a huge fan of Weddle’s- his presence upped the Chargers from a below average defense to an average one, and even though he’s 31, his performance the last couple of seasons has shown that he certainly has a lot left in the tank. Weddle is a strong tackler and a big playmaker that will provide the Ravens with a steady safety for the first time since Ed Reed’s departure, and he will certainly help bolster the team’s ranking in points allowed per game (24th last season).
Robert Ayers to Buccaneers- 3 years, $19.5 million
A former first-round draft pick out of the University of Tennessee, Ayers is definitely not a star, and at 30 years old, he probably never will be. But the former Giant has been steadily improving every facet of his game as he’s gotten older- he became a sturdy presence against the run with the team that drafted him, Denver, and had a career-high 9.5 sacks in New York last season despite playing in only 12 games. He is also very versatile, having played defensive end, defensive tackle, and outside linebacker at points during his career. That the Buccaneers were able to get him on a relatively short contract, for less than $7 million a year, is a real coup.
Evan Mathis to Cardinals- 1 year, $4.01 million
Mathis’s showings in Denver made him appear as if he was nowhere near the dominant force that he was during his prime years in Philadelphia, but that can be accounted for- Mathis signed with Denver fairly late (August 25) and so had limited time to adjust to the scheme he was asked to play while struggling with aches and pains throughout the year. On track to being 100% in training camp after off-season ankle surgery, the former All-Pro will give the Cardinals a stud opposite Mike Iupati at left guard for a salary that is only slightly higher than what he made last season.
Jared Cook to Packers- 1 year, $2.75 million
Cook has definitely not been the most durable guy in the world, and hasn’t put up the best stats considering his status as one of the most athletic tight ends in the league. However, the former Ram is now healthy, and is surely over the moon at the chance to play with an elite quarterback like Aaron Rodgers. I think that Cook will become one of the Packer star’s top targets, just as Jermichael Finley was in his prime, and fulfill the potential that the Rams had hoped he could provide.
Mohamed Sanu to Falcons- 5 years, $32.5 million
I actually really like Sanu- he’s very fast and very versatile, and before this season, I felt that he should be the number two guy in Cincy behind AJ Green. However, I think that paying almost $6.5 million for a guy that isn’t among the best #2 options in the league is a little bit steep, especially when a guy like Rishard Matthews, a player whose talent I see as similar to Sanu’s, is making $5 million a year.
Chris Ivory to Jaguars- 5 years, $32 million
Last year, the Jags drafted Alabama running back TJ Yeldon, who averaged 4.1 yards per carry beyond an offensive line that didn’t exactly set the world on fire, showing that Yeldon is both an explosive and powerful back. The Jacksonville management, however, obviously doesn’t agree with that, and decided to spend over $6 million on Ivory. The former Jet is a good back, but he’s expensive for a running back in an age of passing and will stunt the young Yeldon’s growth.
Travis Benjamin to Chargers- 4 years, $24 million
Yet another case of a team overpaying for a speedy receiver that doesn’t deserve his salary; Benjamin had a fantastic year in Cleveland, playing with below average quarterbacks while posting a 996/5 line in a contract year. The problem with Benjamin is that while he has shown some great big play ability, he hasn’t been very consistent, and his performance faded down the stretch. Benjamin is good, but he’s not $6 million a year good.
Casey Heyward to Chargers- 3 years, $15.3 million
I don’t think that this deal is as bad as the other ones listed here, but it’s still a questionable one. As a Bears fan, I got to see my fair share of Heyward in a Packers jersey, and he didn’t impress me all that much, especially for a guy that was so highly touted coming out of college. San Diego also paid Heyward more than the guy who he is effectively replacing, Patrick Robinson, who is, in my opinion, a better and more productive corner than the former Green Bay man.
Kirk Cousins, Redskins- 1 year, $19.95 million (franchise tag)
It took a while for the ‘Skins to decide between Robert Griffin III and Cousins as to which quarterback would be made the fact of the franchise, and it seems that their patience with the former Michigan State star has finally paid off. After a rocky start to the year, Cousins led his team into the playoffs with a phenomenal season, and he figures to be the long term answer at QB the team has been after for a long, long time.
Von Miller, Broncos- 1 year, $14.1million (franchise tag)
Miller confirmed his status as one of the league’s elite defensive players in the Super Bowl, finishing with six tackles, two-and-a-half sacks, and one MVP award. With Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler off to new pastures, the Broncos will be more of a defense-oriented team than ever before, and having Miller back in the fold ensures that they will still be a force to be reckoned with next season.
Alshon Jeffery, Bears- 1 year, $14.6 million (franchise tag)
The first pick in the 2012 draft for the Bears, former Boise State star Shea McClellin, didn’t turn out so hot- he struggled to find a position in Chicago before departing to New England this off-season. Their second round pick, Jeffery, is a much different story- the former South Carolina receiver has developed into one of the league’s best pass catchers and is, by far, the team’s most talented player. Keeping him in Chicago gives Jay Cutler a go-to weapon this upcoming season, and hopefully for many more to come.
Eric Berry, Chiefs- 1 year, $10.81 million (franchise tag)
Berry is a truly phenomenal story- he was one of the league’s top safeties before being diagnosed with leukemia, and once he beat the cancer, he returned to become… one of the league’s top safeties. His determination, energy, and leadership are unparalleled, and the Chiefs are lucky to be blessed with such an amazing player and an amazing man.
Doug Martin, Buccaneers- 5 years, $35.75 million
Signing Martin to a big deal was seemingly out of the question before this season started, when the Bucs declined the fifth-year option on the running back’s rookie deal. However, with the pressure, and spotlight, on Jameis Winston instead of Martin, the former Boise State stud played in all 16 games for the first time since his rookie year, picking up 1,402 yards on the ground to go along with his 7 total touchdowns. Making sure he stayed in Tampa ensured that the Bucs will have a balanced attack as long as he and Winston stay in the pewter and red.
Best Unsigned Players:
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB (Teams in play: Jets, Broncos, 49ers)
It’s expected the Fitzpatrick will re-sign with the Jets- he and receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker have a great relationship, and both parties seem willing to bend a little to get a deal done. However, considering how long the two sides have been debating the terms of a contract, there’s always a chance that a team searching for a QB, like Denver, or a dark horse team looking for competition, like San Francisco, gets in on the sweepstakes for the Harvard grad.
Leon Hall, CB (Teams in play: Bengals, Titans, Jaguars)
Hall was once an All-Pro cornerback, but the 31 year-old former first-round pick no longer has the pace to deal with the league’s top wideouts. However, his performances last year show that he still has some gas left in his tank, and his veteran savvy would be valuable for any young secondary. There’s an off chance that he returns to Cincinnati, but I expect him to eventually sign with either Jacksonville or Tennessee, up-and-coming teams that have (seemingly) solid offenses with inexperienced defenses.
Greg Hardy, DE (Teams in play: Unknown)
Hardy is sure to generate at least a little bit of interest- he is a true physical specimen that showed that even when the world is against him, he can still be a fearsome pass rusher. However, Hardy’s history off the field, paired with recent comments that he made to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, have, rightfully, turned many teams off. It’ll be interesting to see how his market changes throughout the spring and summer months.