NFL free agency kicks off soon — the deadline for teams to franchise tag players is now Monday, and teams can begin negotiating with free agents also on Monday — 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.
Monday, March 16
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 both Bill Belichick and twin brother Jason 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-money market 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 and 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 bounceback season for the Texans last season. 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 December 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 new record deal for a slot corner, which had guys like Bryce Callahan, Tavon Young and Justin Coleman signing 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 came 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 last 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 what would have been the best left tackle on the market back 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 which 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 their 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 deal 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.