I guess it’s back to slavery for Brandon Spikes. Spikes famously referred to his time in New England, to start his career from 2010-2013, as “4 years a slave” on Twitter after signing with division rival Buffalo last off-season, showing something in between a lame joke and a lack of self-awareness in the process. Spikes has reportedly rubbed coaches the wrong way throughout his career, a big part of the reason why he remained unsigned this late into free agency, so it looks like the joke is on him.
Spikes is only a two down middle linebacker, but he’s very good at what he does. He’s graded out 4th, 22nd, 1st, 1st, and 9th among middle linebackers against the run in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He’s never played more than 742 snaps in a season because of his issues in coverage and he’s never ranked higher than 20th at his position in coverage, but he still should have seen a bigger market than this.
Ironically, the only place that would take him is the Patriots, who welcome him back on a 1.15 million dollar deal. Spikes won’t even start in New England this time around, as Jamie Collins broke out in his absence in a Super Bowl winning season, but he’ll provide valuable depth for a team whose two-down linebacker, Jerod Mayo, has missed 20 games with injury over the past 2 seasons and who is coming off of a torn patellar tendon, arguably the worst injury in football. It’s funny that Spikes had to settle for this deal and the Patriots are getting a steal, even if he doesn’t fill a need.
Barksdale was shockingly still available this late in free agency. Barksdale was a 3rd round pick of the Raiders in 2011, but he barely played in his first 2 seasons in the league, playing 282 snaps in 2011-2012 combined. He became a starter in 2013 with the Rams, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked offensive tackle in 13 starts. He couldn’t quite match that in 2014, grading out slightly below average in 16 starts, but I still expected him to get signed to a multi-year deal for starter’s money early in free agency. However, Barksdale drew little attention early in free agency and then the Rams drafted Rob Havenstein in the 2nd round to replace him.
As a result, he ends up in San Diego, where I never expected he’d end up, especially this late in free agency. Right tackle wasn’t a huge need for the Chargers as they like 2013 11th overall pick DJ Fluker, but Barksdale still helps their team at a cheap price, 1.35 million over a year. Barksdale slots in at right tackle and moves Fluker inside to right guard, where his issues with pass protection will be masked better, and moves Justin Britt from right guard to center, getting Trevor Robinson out of the starting lineup. The Chargers are actually upgrading 3 spots on the offensive line a little for 1.35 million. This was a savvy move by savvy GM Tom Telesco.
In total, this is a 6-year, 96 million dollar deal, but Tannehill was already scheduled to make about 18 million over the next 2 years, between the final year of his rookie deal and the 5th year option the Dolphins exercised earlier this off-season. The extension itself is about 78 million over 4 years, so the average is bigger than the 16 million dollar average it seems like at first. However, only about 45 million of the contract is guaranteed, and even that amount is not fully guaranteed. Tannehill will make 25 million over the first 2 seasons of the deal, but, if he flops in those 2 years, the Dolphins can get out of the rest of the deal entirely, as long as they cut him before the start of the league year in 2017. Basically, they’re giving him an extra 7 million over the next 2 years, guaranteeing it fully (before this extension his 2015 salary was just guaranteed for injury), in exchange for having the option of having him under contract for a combined 71 million over 4 years from 2017-2020, with the ability to get out of it at any point during that time period.
Given that what the Dolphins are actually giving Tannehill is not nearly as onerous as the raw numbers suggest, this is a very good deal. Tannehill, the 8th overall pick in 2012, has gotten better in every year of his career, going from a quarterback rating of 76.1 as a rookie to 81.7 in 2013 and then 92.8. Last season, he finished the year completing 66.4% of his passes for an average of 6.86 yards per attempt, 27 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. On the season, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked quarterback. He finished 5th in completion percentage, had a strong TD:INT ratio, with his only subpar area being his YPA average. In his career, he’s been below 7 YPA in every season, including last year.
However, I’m not worried about that for two reasons. One, he wasn’t necessarily inaccurate downfield. The offense just called for him to throw a lot of shorter passes, likely because the Dolphins surprisingly ranked 2nd the NFL in yards per carry (4.69 YPA). Tannehill completed 58.6% of his passes between 10-19 yards downfield, which is better than league average, and, while he only completed 30.2% of his passes 20+ yards downfield, he ranked 22nd out of 38 eligible in accuracy (completions + drops/attempts) 20+ yards downfield, so he wasn’t necessarily bad in that aspect of the game.
Second, I find completion percentage to be a more important stat as high completion percentage often correlates with your offense regularly being on schedule. I realize that Tannehill’s completion percentage is inflated by the types of passes he was attempting and that he owes a lot of that high number to his running game making things easier for him, but the Dolphins finished 8th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains last season, moving them at a 75.33% rate. Tannehill doesn’t deserve all the credit for that, but he deserves some, especially as he was dealing with poor offensive line play and an average at best receiving corps. Tannehill also contributed to that strong running game, rushing for 311 yards and 1 touchdown on 56 attempts (5.55 YPC). Besides, while the Dolphins ran well on a per play average, they didn’t run that often overall. Including pass attempts, sacks, and quarterback carries, Tannehill was involved on 66.5% of the Dolphins offensive plays last season, one of the highest usage rates in the NFL.
Right now, I’d say Tannehill is one of the top 10-15 quarterbacks in the NFL with the potential to get even better, going into his 4th year in the league, his age 27 season. It’s a fairly low risk deal if Tannehill flops and, if he doesn’t, this is the kind of money you have to pay to keep a quarterback in today’s NFL. Right now, there are 16 quarterbacks, including Tannehill, whose contracts have an average salary of 15+ million dollars in the NFL. Excluding guys on rookie deals, only one other veteran makes more than 5.25 million annually on his contract. There isn’t a middle ground with quarterbacks in today’s NFL. With the salary cap expanding at a rapid pace, almost all of the extra money is going to the most important position on the field, which makes sense.
The Patriots cut Kyle Arrington earlier this week, voiding the 6.5 million in non-guaranteed money over 2 years remaining on his contract. It was a weird move, as Arrington was a valuable slot cornerback for them, grading out above average in 4 straight seasons, including 21st in 2013, and the Patriots had already lost their starting cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner this off-season. Perhaps they thought they could re-sign him a little cheaper, but the Ravens didn’t let that happen.
The Patriots’ loss is the Ravens’ gain as Kyle Arrington fills arguably their biggest remaining need. Things were so bad at cornerback for the Ravens that Rashaan Melvin, a 2013 undrafted free agent who was signed mid-season and made his NFL debut week 15, drew the start for them in the playoffs. Jimmy Smith’s injury was a big part of the problem, as he missed 8 games, but the problem has been there since last off-season, when they failed to find a replacement for Corey Graham, their talented #3 cornerback who signed with Buffalo. Their depth was shaky coming into the season (#3 cornerback Asa Jackson had never played a defensive snap in the NFL coming into this season) and this kind of situation was foreseeable.
Smith will be back healthy next year, after signing a 4-year, 41 million dollar extension, and Lardarius Webb, who graded out above average in every season from 2009-2013 (including 4th in 2011) could have a bounce back year, but the Ravens were left without a solid 3rd cornerback, only adding Tray Walker in the 4th round through the draft. Getting Arrington on a 3-year, 7.5 million dollar deal with 2.8 million guaranteed and taking him away from another one of the top teams in the AFC is a gift for the Ravens.
Trade for Jets: Stacy was the feature back in St. Louis in 2013, but wasn’t that good, rushing for 973 yards and 7 touchdowns on 250 carries, an average of 3.89 yards per carry. The Rams brought in Tre Mason in the 3rd round last year to replace him and then in this year’s drafted they added Todd Gurley 10th overall, feeling they couldn’t pass on someone they felt was the next Adrian Peterson. That pushed Stacy to 3rd or even 4th on the depth chart (behind Benny Cunningham), which made him unhappy. He requested a trade and got one, going to the Jets for a 7th round pick.
The Jets aren’t giving up much here for the 2013 5th round pick, giving up a 7th round pick, and he’s still on a rookie deal so he’ll come very cheap for them. His career 3.88 YPC is partially the product of St. Louis’ poor run blocking. However, Stacy is pretty much a poor man’s version of Chris Ivory and Stevan Ridley who they already have. Like Ivory and Ridley, Stacy is a powerful between the tackles runner, who lacks agility, outside running ability, and pass catching ability (44 catches for 293 yards and a touchdown in 27 games). The Jets still don’t have a good outside the tackles complementary runner and their passing down back Bilal Powell leaves a lot to be desired. Stacy will have a tough time making this roster and carving out a role. I’m surprised they didn’t add a running back through the draft.
Trade for Rams: You can question whether or not the Rams made the right move at 10 overall, taking a player who doesn’t address a major need, but once they made that deal, they kind of had to do something with Zac Stacy. He wanted out and Benny Cunningham offers more in terms of versatility as a 3rd running back. This isn’t a great deal or anything, but credit them for at least getting something for him. Given that Stacy likely won’t make the Jets’ roster, they’re slight winners here.
Stevie Brown, a 2010 7th round pick, played just 151 snaps combined in 2010 and 2011, but had a breakout year in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked safety. Unfortunately for him, he tore his ACL and missed his entire contract year in 2013 and was forced to settle for a one year deal back with the Giants to rehab his value. His 2014 season was a mixed bag. He graded out about average and played all 16 games, but he made just 8 starts and played just 559 snaps as he was benched for a stretch in the middle of the season.
As a result, he was forced to settle for this deal that’s near the NFL minimum (825K) for one-year and the Texans are getting a good deal on a guy that should at least be a replacement level starter. He’ll be an upgrade over DJ Swearinger, a 2013 2nd round pick who graded out 78th out of 87 eligible safeties last season. Swearinger wasn’t drafted by the current coaching staff, who isn’t thrilled with him and his unwillingness to play special teams, so they’re expected to trade or cut him, despite his youth. It wasn’t a good safety class in free agency, but the Texans got two of the top safeties on the market (Rahim Moore) without spending much money at all.
Casey was signed by the Eagles following the 2012 season to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal. He was expected to be a jack of all traits matchup nightmare in Chip Kelly’s offense, but struggled to make it onto the field, playing a combined 330 snaps in 2 seasons in Philadelphia behind both Brent Celek and Zach Ertz, before being an easy cap casualty this off-season. He’s going into his age 31 season in 2015, but he’s had success with Denver Head Coach Kubiak before and they’re only paying him 1.25 million over 1 year, a fraction of what he was making in Philadelphia.
He’ll likely reprise his old role from Houston, where he played 609 snaps in 2012 under Kubiak, despite the fact that the Texans had Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham. Kubiak frequently uses two tight ends and a fullback. He’ll do that less this season in Denver because of Peyton Manning, but Casey will see a lot of playing time at fullback. He’s was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked fullback in 2011 and 10th ranked fullback in 2012. This is a solid cheap pickup by the Broncos, getting a decent player who has scheme familiarity and fill a need.
This is the classic case of a team overpaying for a marginal talent. Mercilus has largely been disappointing since the Texans drafted him 26th overall in 2012. Mercilus has graded out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the NFL, including 28th out of 34 eligible in 2012 and 42nd out of 42 eligible in 2013. He’s coming off of the best season of his career in 2014, but he still only graded out 35th out of 46 eligible, particularly struggling as a pass rusher.
Mercilus was going into his contract year in 2015, but he wouldn’t have been hard to replace. The Texans certainly didn’t need to pay him 26 million over 4 years, including 10.8 million guaranteed. Even if the Texans thought internally that Mercilus was due for a breakout year, they should have just picked up his option for 2016. That option is guaranteed for injury only, so the Texans would have, barring a serious injury, had the option to go back on that option next off-season, which would have given them much more flexibility than this. This deal is a premature overpay at best.
The Vikings signed Jennings to a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, expecting to get the guy who had 3 seasons of 1000 yards or more in Green Bay. However, Jennings wasn’t able to come close to those numbers without Aaron Rodgers, averaging 64 catches for 773 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2 seasons in Minnesota. He’s now going into his age 32 season and hasn’t had a 1000+ yard season since 2010. He also hasn’t graded out in the top-40 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus since 2011. He’s an aging, declining, marginal player.
The Vikings cut Jennings to save 9 million in cash and 5 million in cap space this off-season. The Dolphins are getting him much cheaper, 8 million over 2 years, with nothing guaranteed beyond the first year. It’s an appropriate value for him, but usually teams get better than appropriate values for players this late in the off-season. It’s not a bad deal, but considering the younger Michael Crabtree got just 3 million over 1 year, I was a little surprised to see Jennings got this much at this stage of the off-season. He’ll fill in a need in Miami as the 3rd receiver behind Kenny Stills and Jarvis Landry, but this signing won’t preclude the Dolphins from using an early pick on a receiver in the draft.
This was originally reported to be a 4-year, 48 million dollar deal, but that’s not entirely accurate. Smith’s contract is worth 48 million, but that’s including the 6.9 million dollar player option he has for 2015. This contract is actually “only” worth 41.1 million in new money over 4 years. That’s an average of 10.275 million annually in new money, good for 6th highest in the NFL among cornerbacks. Smith is guaranteed 21 million over the first 2 years of the deal, including a 13 million dollar signing bonus, and has non-guaranteed salaries of 8.5 million, 9 million, and 9.5 million in 2017, 2018, and 2019.
Simply put, it’s a lot of money. As I mentioned, it’s the 6th most expensive contract in terms of average annual salary among cornerbacks in the NFL. Smith has played like that at times. A 1st round pick in 2011, Smith moved into the starting lineup in 2012, after impressing on 256 snaps as a rookie, and has improved in every season as a starter, grading out 112th (2nd worst in the NFL) in 2012, 35th in 2013, and 20th in 2014. He was even better than that suggests in 2012 as he did that on 476 snaps, missing 8 games with a foot injury. Through the first 7 games of the season, before his injury, he was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback, including 4th in pure coverage grade, allowing 51.3% completion and 4.18 yards per attempt on 39 attempts.
The Ravens are obviously banking that Smith continues developing into one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, going into his age 27 season. That certainly could happen, but this deal seems to have way more downside than upside. Best case scenario, Smith becomes one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL and the Ravens are paying him appropriately. But there’s also a strong chance that Smith never really consistently shows top level ability or gets hurt again (he’s missed 17 games in 4 seasons in the NFL). It’s not a terrible deal, but it is an overpay by a team that already has a bunch of large contracts on their books going forward.
Stefen Wisniewski, a 2011 2nd round pick, has made 61 starts over the past 4 years for the Raiders. After struggling out of position at guard as a rookie, Wisniewski graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th, 11th, and 22nd ranked center in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, which means that he’s been an average starter. Only going into his age 26 season, the only reason Wisniewski was available so late into free agency was because he had off-season shoulder surgery. However, I always thought that whichever team ended up signing him was going to get a great value on a starter.
Credit the Jaguars for being that team, signing him to a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. He’s fills a significant need inside at center as the Jaguars were forced to start 6th round rookie Luke Bowanko at center last season. He predictably struggled, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked center out of 41 eligible. Bowanko might still have long-term upside as a starter, but Wisniewski is an immediate upgrade.
This move was made last month, but I didn’t originally grade it because I thought it was just a pure pay cut. I don’t grade pure pay cuts because there’s no downside for a team involved so it’s a pretty boring grade. However, it does appear that Amendola was given some guarantees as part of this restructure, whereas originally he didn’t have any money guaranteed in any of the final 3 years of his contract, so there is some evaluating to be done.
This deal is worth a maximum of 14.25 million over 3 years, but it can essentially be seen as a 1-year, 2.25 million dollar prove it deal as there isn’t anything guaranteed beyond the first year. In fact, all that’s guaranteed is a 500K signing bonus, though it seems like a fairly safe bet that Amendola will be in New England in 2015 as the #3 receiver behind Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell and collecting around 2.25 million (some of that money is in the form of per game roster bonuses so it’s possible it could be slightly less). However, if he continues to struggle, the Patriots can get out of the remaining 2 years and 12 million of the contract after the season without owing him anything more.
Amendola was signed by the Patriots to a 5-year, 28.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago to be the long-term replacement for Wes Welker. That didn’t happen, though fortunately for the Patriots, Julian Edelman became what they were expecting Amendola to become. Amendola missed 4 games with injury in 2013 and, though he played all 16 games in 2014, he struggled mightily overall. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 93rd ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible on 466 snaps.
He did play well down the stretch though, catching 27 passes for 242 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final 7 games of the season, including the playoffs. That gave the Patriots hope that Amendola could bounce back in 2015 and become the player who averaged 2.04 yards per route run in 2012 with the Rams, which is why they gave him this new deal. It’s a long shot for a guy who is already going into his age 30 season and who has an extensive injury history, but this isn’t a terrible deal. This restructure saves them more on the cap than an outright cut would have, as a cut would have saved them 2.1 million, while this saves them 2.5 million, at least for 2015. If they cut him next off-season, 2.73 million of dead money will be added to their cap for 2016, but the Patriots are still in win now mode with a soon to be 38-year-old quarterback so it makes sense in that sense.
This is definitely a solid value for Ridley, as he’ll only make 1.25 million in 2015, with just 80K guaranteed. Ridley, a 2011 3rd round pick, rushed for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 carries (4.36 YPC) in his 2nd year in the league in 2012. He comes cheap for a reason though, as, in the two seasons since, he’s rushed for 1113 yards and 9 touchdowns on 272 carries (4.09 YPC). He’s also coming off of a torn ACL he suffered midway through last season. On top of that, he’s useless as a pass catcher, with 23 catches in 52 career games and has 9 career fumbles on 672 career touches. Still, he’s a solid buy low candidate at this price.
However, he’s a weird fit in New York for two reasons. For one, he’s a very similar player to Chris Ivory, a powerful between the tackles runner and little else, with little agility or pass catching ability. He won’t be a passing down upgrade on the limited Bilal Powell nor will he be a good change of pace back to Ivory. Two, the Jets’ offensive coordinator is Chan Gailey, who prefers quicker, smaller running backs who can do things in space, like he had in Buffalo with CJ Spiller. The Jets don’t have anyone who fits that mold as Ridley and Ivory are purely downhill runners and Powell is a mediocre talent.
This signing doesn’t preclude the Jets from drafting a speedy running back on day 2 of the draft. I currently have them taking Duke Johnson from Miami. It’s possible that Ridley and Ivory are fighting for one roster spot. I expect Ivory, who was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked running back in pure running grade in 2014, to win that battle (at least I hope he would) so it’s very possible that Ridley gets cut before the season starts. In that sense, it could prove to be a wasted signing, but, with just 80K guaranteed, he’s worth the flier, as he long as he doesn’t cause the Jets to cut the talented Ivory.
Moore only attempted 29 passes over the past 3 seasons combined in Miami as Ryan Tannehill has made 48 straight starts to begin his career, but he wasn’t horrible in his last extended playing time in 2011, completing 60.5% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. He graded out 13th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus that season. The fact that he hasn’t played much in the last 3 seasons hurts him, but he’s only going into his age 31 season and I’m kind of surprised he didn’t draw interest on the open market as a stopgap starter. He’s better than Josh McCown, who got 6.25 million guaranteed from the Browns.
The Browns’ loss is the Dolphins’ gain as they were able to keep Moore as a backup for only 2.6 million over 1 year. He made 8 million over the past 2 years to be the backup quarterback so this is significantly cheaper. The Dolphins obviously are hoping that Moore won’t have to make a start for them this season as Ryan Tannehill as developed into a franchise quarterback, but, if Tannehill does get hurt, they’ll be in capable hands with Moore as their backup.
Johnson was originally given an original pick tender by the Lions this off-season, which gave them the right of first refusal. The Buccaneers signed Johnson to a 3-year, 9 million dollar deal, which the Lions matched in a sign and trade that sends a 5th rounder to Detroit and a 7th rounder to Tampa Bay. Johnson is the definition of a one-year wonder. A 2010 undrafted free agent out of Rutgers, Johnson played a combined 155 snaps in his first 4 seasons in the NFL, spending time on both the Buccaneers’ and the Vikings’ rosters, not recording a single sack, and not playing a single snap in 2013. Detroit signed him as a camp body last off-season and he ended up not just making the final roster, but recording his first 7 sacks of his career.
The Buccaneers are banking that Johnson (who was signed off their practice squad by the Vikings in 2012) is more of a late bloomer than a one-year wonder, signing him to this 3-year, 9 million dollar deal and swapping a 5th rounder for a 7th rounder. Before this signing, the Buccaneers top defensive ends were the likes of Jacquies Smith, William Gholston, Lawrence Sidbury, and Larry English so Johnson has a clear path to a starting role and should surpass the 502 snaps he played last season with a new career high.
However, it’s obviously a risky deal as Johnson is already going into his age 28 season and, even in the best season of his career last year, Johnson still only graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus, obviously playing well as a pass rusher in a situational role, but struggling against the run. The transition to being an every down player could be tough for him even if he doesn’t regress. The Buccaneers aren’t betting a ton of money as this deal is worth 3 million annually and doesn’t have any money guaranteed after the first year and the Buccaneers arguably need edge rushers more than any other team in the NFL, but I’m also not surprised the Lions, who also have a need at 4-3 defensive end, let him go.
The Raiders had the NFL’s worst offense last season in terms of rate of moving the chains differential and have been in search of wide receiver help for young quarterback Derek Carr this off-season. They made a big offer to both Randall Cobb and Jeremy Maclin and they’ve been tied to both Amari Cooper and Kevin White with the 4th overall pick. They finally added a receiver here in Michael Crabtree. However, while Cobb and Maclin were top end receivers and White and Cooper have the potential to be top end receivers, Crabtree is very similar to what they already have in guys in James Jones and Rod Streater, slower possession receivers that aren’t #1 receivers, that don’t shift coverage, and that have the majority of their production in similar parts of the field.
Crabtree was seen as a steal when the 49ers drafted him 10th overall in 2009, but he never really lived up to expectations. He looked like he was on his way towards living up to those expectations in 2012, when he caught 85 passes for 1105 yards and 9 touchdowns on 118 targets (72.0%) and 433 routes run (an average of 2.55 yards per route run), grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver. He was even better down the stretch that season, catching 61 passes for 880 yards and 8 touchdowns in his final 10 games, including playoffs. That’s 98 catches for 1408 yards and 13 touchdowns over 16 games.
However, he tore his Achilles the following off-season and was never the same. He caught just 19 passes for 284 yards and a touchdown in 5 games in 2013 (34 catches for 487 yards and a touchdown in 8 games if you count playoffs) and then was even worse on a per game basis in 2014. He played all 16 games, but caught just 68 passes for 698 yards and 4 touchdowns on 102 targets (66.7%) and 474 routes run (1.47 yards per route run). His per game yardage numbers in 2014 were the worst of his career and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 95th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible. 2012 remains his only 1000+ yard season and he’s graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 6 seasons, including each of the last 2 seasons.
I definitely don’t hate the value. I expected Crabtree to get about 5-6 million dollars annually on a multi-year deal this off-season and the Raiders are getting him cheap late in free agency, on a 1-year deal worth 3 million with another 2 million available in incentives. Crabtree is still a starting caliber player and looked on his way towards becoming one of the best young receivers in the game prior to a May 2013 Achilles tear so there’s some bounce back potential (though the rest of the league didn’t seem to think so). I just think it’s a weird fit. Between Crabtree, Jones, Streater, and deep threat Andre Holmes, the Raiders have a lot of #2 and #3 guys at wideout, but not a #1. While this deal makes it less likely they’ll go wide receiver at 4, in favor of someone like defensive tackle Leonard Williams, it doesn’t preclude them from doing so. Streater, Holmes, and Crabtree will all be free agents next off-season, while James Jones will be going into an age 32 contract year in 2016, owed a non-guaranteed 3.1 million. Besides, as I mentioned, the Raiders don’t have a #1 caliber receiver either in the short-term or the long-term.
Pouncey was the Dolphins’ first round pick in 2011, 15th overall, and he made 46 starts at center from 2011-2013, grading out 22nd, 12th, and 14th in those 3 seasons respectively. However, Pouncey missed the first 4 games of last season with a hip injury and, upon his return, they opted to leave Satele at center and move Pouncey to right guard, a move that didn’t work out at all. Not only did Satele finish the season as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked center out of 41 eligible, Pouncey himself struggled mightily out of position at right guard, grading out 69th out of 78 eligible at his new position.
Pouncey could easily bounce back in 2015, as he’ll be healthier and back at his natural position, and the Dolphins are certainly betting on that happening, but the Dolphins are betting a ton of money, giving him a 5-year, 52.15 million dollar deal with at least 22 million guaranteed over the first 2 seasons. This makes him the richest center in the NFL by a long-shot. The 10.43 million dollar annual average will surpass Rodney Hudson’s (8.9 million), Maurkice Pouncey’s (8.827 million), and Alex Mack’s (8.4 million), three deals that all set new records for average salary by a center when they were signed.
That means the average salary record for centers has been broken 4 times in about a calendar year with this deal breaking it by a long-shot. This deal also makes him the 4th richest offensive lineman in the NFL in terms of average annual salary behind Tyron Smith (12.2 million), Joe Thomas (11.5 million), and Ryan Clady (10.5 million), three guys who are all either franchise left tackles or who were at the time of signing (Clady’s career has been derailed by injuries a little bit).
This is simply too much money for a center, especially one like Pouncey who has never really played at an elite level and who is coming off of a down year. If this was really the best deal Pouncey would have taken at this point, the Dolphins would have been much better off letting him play out the final season of his contract at 7.438 million, waiting to see if not only he bounces back in 2015, but also breaks out as an elite center (still a possibility considering he’s only going into his age 26 season), and then negotiating with him next off-season.
If he had a truly dominant year in 2015, he might be worth this kind of dough, but not right now. And if Pouncey wouldn’t take this deal in a year, let him test the open market and get overpaid elsewhere and find a cheaper replacement. There’s no excuse for this kind of deal right now. Between this deal, Ndamukong Suh’s deal (19.1 million annually), Branden Albert’s deal (9.4 million annually), Brent Grimes’ deal (8 million annually), Jordan Cameron’s deal (7.5 million annually), Reshad Jones’ deal (7 million annually), Cameron Wake’s deal (6.64 million) and Ryan Tannehill’s impending extension, the Dolphins’ cap is about to get really top heavy over the next few years, making it very hard for them to fill other needs.
Even before this deal and Tannehill’s impending deal, the Dolphins had 75.8 million in cap space committed to 6 players in 2016 and cutting them all who don’t have guaranteed money on their contract would only save the Dolphins 33.7 million in cap space immediately. Between this deal and Tannehill’s, that number could easily be over 100 million. That’s not where you want to be, especially for a roster’s like Miami that still isn’t one of the NFL’s elites. This deal is an inexcusable overpay.
Update: This deal turned out to only be worth 45 million over 5 years. It’s still the most expensive deal for a center in NFL history and an overpay, but it’s not quite as bad.
This move happened early in March, but it got lost in the shuffle for me so I’m just getting to it now. Walker graded out above average in both 2012 and 2013, including 17th in 2012, earning him a 3-year, 10 million dollar deal with the Chiefs last off-season. However, Walker ended up playing just 238 snaps with the Chiefs in 16 games and got released this off-season, a move that saved the Chiefs 2.75 million in cash and 1.75 million in cap space.
The Broncos signed Walker to a 2-year, 4 million dollar deal and it’s a pretty good value. Even though Walker didn’t earn the trust of the coaching staff in Kansas City, leading to limited playing time from him, he actually played pretty well on the field. In fact, no one played fewer snaps than him and graded out worse at his position in 2014. Scheme versatile, with success in a 4-3 in Atlanta, a 4-3 in Oakland, and a 3-4 in Kansas City, Walker will slot in as a valuable reserve 3-4 defensive end in the Broncos’ new 3-4 defense.
Walker will rotate with Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe, and fellow free agent signing Antonio Smith at 3-4 defensive end. Sylvester Williams will slot in at nose tackle, with DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller at rush linebacker, Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan at middle linebacker, Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, and Bradley Roby at cornerback and TJ Ward and Darian Stewart at safety. The Broncos lost a lot this off-season, but they’ve made some nice, under the radar moves and will only have pressing needs on the offensive line going into the draft. They could fill those holes ahead of the draft as there are still some decent offensive linemen available in free agent. Obviously much of how this team does next season hinges on Peyton Manning and his health going into his age 39 season, but I thought this was the best overall team in football last year before Manning got hurt. With their early odds at 15-1, they’re a decent value to win next year’s Super Bowl.
Antonio Smith was released by the Raiders recently, a move that saved the Raiders 4 million in cash and cap space, after Smith had a down season in his first season in Oakland, grading out below average for the first time since 2010. The Broncos are signing him for half of that on this 1-year, 2 million dollar deal and he has a good chance to bounce back in Denver, reuniting with former Houston head coach Gary Kubiak and, more importantly, former Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
In Denver, Smith will move from defensive tackle back to a more natural position for him at 3-4 defensive end and play in a rotation with Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe, and Vance Walker. Smith still got great pass rush at defensive tackle for the Raiders last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked defensive tackle in terms of pass rush grade, but he graded out dead last overall, which is why he overall graded out below average. Coincidentally enough, 2010, the last time Smith graded out below average before last season, was also the last time that Smith played without Wade Phillips and played in a 4-3, so a return to Phillips’ 3-4 should be good for him.
In 2011, 2012, and 2013, Smith graded out 6th, 5th, and 18th among 3-4 defensive ends, including 2nd, 2nd, and 5th in pure pass rush grade. He hasn’t graded out above average against the run since 2007, back when he played 4-3 defensive end, and he’ll see the vast majority of his snaps in Denver in obvious passing situations, but he should still be an asset for them. The one concern is he’s going into his age 34 season, especially concerning when coupled with his play last season, but he’s going guaranteed 500K and he could still have one last solid season left in him in the right role in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense.
The Bears got a little younger, a little cheaper, and a little better at center this week. They released Roberto Garza, saving them 1.1 million on the cap, replacing him with Will Montgomery, who will make just 900K in 2015. Montgomery is no spring chicken, going into his age 32 season, part of why he was available for so little, but he’s younger than Garza, who is going into his age 36 season. He’s also better, grading out 15th among centers last year, while Garza graded out 21st.
Montgomery follows new Bears head coach John Fox over from Denver, where Montgomery made 8 starts last season and he’ll presumably be the starter in Chicago this season. Given that, this is a very good value for around the veteran’s minimum, especially since Montgomery happens to be a solid player. He’s graded out 18th, 5th, 15th, and 15th among centers over the past 4 seasons combined on Pro Football Focus, making 56 starts over that time period, including 3 at left guard.
This is quietly one of the best moves of the off-season as the Colts were able to add a starter at safety for around the veteran’s minimum. With LaRon Landry getting released as a cap casualty and Sergio Brown signing in Jacksonville, Lowery fills a significant need. Dwight Lowery has always been a solid starting safety when healthy. The Falcons signed Lowery cheap last off-season and there was a reason he was available so cheap, even though he graded out above average in every season from 2008-2012, including 18th among safeties in 2012. Lowery missed 20 games in 2012-2013 combined and he hadn’t played all 16 games since his rookie year in 2008.
Lowery proved to be a smart signing by the Falcons, as he graded out above average again and, more important, made all 16 starts. His health is still a concern long-term, but, if healthy, he should once again prove to be a smart signing again, this time by the Colts. I expected him to draw more interest in the open market after he managed to stay healthy last season, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. The Colts will be the beneficiary of that.
The argument before the 2010 NFL Draft was Sam Bradford or Ndamukong Suh. While Suh has clearly been the right answer of those two, Suh actually hasn’t even been the best defensive tackle in this draft class. Both Suh and McCoy have been top-4 defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons, but McCoy has actually ranked higher in all 3 seasons, ranking 2nd, 1st, and 3rd, while Suh has ranked 4th, 2nd, and 4th.
McCoy had injury problems early in his career, missing 13 games over those 2 seasons, but he still was impressive when healthy and Suh took a couple of years to become the player he is today, ranking outside the top-30 on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 2 seasons in the league. Over the past 3 seasons, McCoy has missed just 3 games. The Rams would take either of those two players, but McCoy is the slightly better player in my opinion. The Rams have had issues at defensive tackle for a while, spending a lot of money on Kendall Langford in free agency and drafting both Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald in the first round over the past few seasons. The Rams seem to have struck gold with Donald, but imagine him and McCoy on the same line.
2. Detroit Lions- DT Ndamukong Suh (Nebraska)
While McCoy might be a little bit better than Suh, the Lions don’t have any real complaints about Suh (other that he’s gone now). He’s one of the best defensive tackles in the league, joining McCoy as one of two defensive tackles to grade out in the top-4 on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons. It took him a couple years to get to that point. Despite big sack numbers, he wasn’t anywhere near the complete player he is today early in his career, struggling mightily against the run and not getting nearly the amount of hits and hurries per season he’s had recently. I don’t hold that too much against him though, considering the player he’s become.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers- WR Antonio Brown (Central Michigan)
Calvin Johnson had some injury issues this year, so Antonio Brown took over the mantle of top wide receiver in football and he might actually be better than Johnson if Johnson was healthy. Over the past 2 seasons, Brown has ranked 2nd and 1st in receiving yards, 3rd and 1st on Pro Football Focus among wide receivers, and 7th and 8th in yards per route run. The Buccaneers had a significant wide receiver need going into the 2009 NFL Draft as the only wide receiver they had with more than 366 yards in 2009 was Antonio Bryant, who never played another snap in the NFL. They used 2nd and 4th round picks on 2010 on Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams, but neither of them had any sort of staying power with the team, forcing the team to give Vincent Jackson a big contract and use a high pick on Mike Evans to finally fix their issue at the position. This fixes the problem a lot faster.
4. Washington Redskins- OT Trent Williams (Oklahoma)
The Redskins drafted Trent Williams 4th overall in 2010 to solidify the blindside position on the offensive line and, after a rough rookie year, he’s done that, grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in 4 straight seasons, including 3 straight seasons in the top-18 and a #1 overall finish at the position in 2013. This is a strong draft class so the Redskins certainly have other options, but I generally default to original pick as a tie breaker.
5. Kansas City Chiefs- WR Demaryius Thomas (Georgia Tech)
The Chiefs didn’t get a single touchdown from their wide receivers in 2014. You can blame that partially on bad luck and partially on Alex Smith’s hesitance to throw to wide receivers down the field outside the numbers, but there’s no way that would be the case if the Chiefs had drafted Demaryius Thomas 5th overall in 2010. Demaryius Thomas has put up absurd numbers over the past 3 seasons, playing all 48 games, catching 297 passes for 4483 yards and 35 touchdowns. Playing with Peyton Manning at quarterback and being a target monster has definitely helped him, but he’s graded out 2nd, 5th, and 5th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in his own right in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. No other wide receiver has graded out in the top-5 in all 3 of those seasons. Along with Calvin Johnson and draft-mate Antonio Brown, you can make a case for him as the best wide receiver in football.
6. Seattle Seahawks- S Earl Thomas (Texas)
The Seahawks struck gold with Earl Thomas with the 14th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, but they have to draft him earlier in this re-draft to keep him. That’s fine with the Seahawks, who originally drafted Russell Okung at this spot and he’s struggled through injuries thus far in his 5 year NFL career. Earl Thomas and Devin McCourty are the two best pure free safeties in the NFL and both went in this draft. It’s arguable which one is better, but if you asked the Seahawks, you can bet they’d say Thomas.
7. Cleveland Browns- CB Joe Haden (Florida)
This is another case of a team keeping the player they originally drafted. Haden was one of two cornerbacks to grade out in the top-20 at their position on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2013, which got him a 5-year, 68 million dollar extension last off-season. He graded out 5th in 2010, 10th in 2011, 20th in 2012, and 17th in 2013. By those standards, he had the worst season of his career in 2014, when he graded out 28th, but he’s still one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. There might be better players available at this point, but Haden is in the conversation as one of the best available and he’s re-drafted by the Browns for continuity’s sake.
8. Oakland Raiders- TE Rob Gronkowski (Arizona)
Rob Gronkowski has had issues with injuries throughout his career, but he’s come out fine on the other side of all those injuries and, when healthy, he’s arguably the most valuable offensive skill position player in the NFL who isn’t a quarterback. Gronk has caught 294 passes for 4231 yards and 49 touchdowns in his last 57 games and he averages 2.41 yards per route run in his 5 year career. For comparison, Jimmy Graham averages just 2.08 yards per route run over that same time period and Gronkowski is a significantly better blocker.
It helps to play with Tom Brady, but for Tom Brady, it also really, really helps to play with Gronk. In games where Gronk plays over the past 4 years (since Gronk’s 2011 breakout year), Tom Brady completes 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 114 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions, including playoffs. When he doesn’t over the past 4 years, Brady completes 58.1% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. That’s a significant drop off in production and there’s enough sample size on both sides to confidently attribute a lot of the difference in Brady’s production to the big tight end.
9. Buffalo Bills- TE Jimmy Graham (Miami)
Any debate between Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham should have been put to bed when the Saints traded Graham to Seattle earlier this month. The Patriots would never trade Rob Gronkowski in the prime of his career. He’s too valuable to them. Gronkowski is a better pass catcher, a significantly better blocker, while Graham only having the edge in durability over Gronkowski. Still, he’s a valuable pass catching threat that would really help the Bills, who needed an upgrade at tight end up until they overpaid Charles Clay this off-season. Graham is a significantly better player.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars- S Devin McCourty (Rutgers)
I mentioned that it’s arguable between Earl Thomas and Devin McCourty who is the better free safety. Thomas goes early in this re-draft because the Seahawks wanted to keep their guy, but I actually think McCourty is the better overall player. He entered the NFL as a cornerback, moved to safety in the middle of the 2012 season and has pretty much been dominant wherever he’s been. He’s graded out above average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league since the Patriots drafted him in the 1st round in 2010 and, with the exception of 2011, he’s been an elite player in every season.
In 2010, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked cornerback. In 2012, his composite grade across cornerback and safety would have been 5th among cornerbacks and 4th among safeties. And in the last two seasons, he’s been Pro Football Focus’ 1st and 8th ranked safety respectively. The Jaguars tried to sign him away from the Patriots in the legal tampering period this off-season and you can bet they would have loved to have drafted him instead of Tyson Alualu here in this spot 5 years ago.
11. San Francisco 49ers- WR Dez Bryant (Oklahoma State)
The 49ers drafted Michael Crabtree 10th overall in 2009 and he led their team in receiving yards by a wide receiver in every season from 2009-2012. However, he only went over 1000 yards once in 6 seasons in San Francisco and the 49ers definitely could have used another talented wide receiver to go with him. Bryant only falls to 11 because of how loaded this draft is at the top. Dez Bryant has always been productive, with 381 career catches for 5424 yards and 56 touchdowns in 75 career games in 5 seasons, since being drafted in the first round in 2010.
He’s been especially good over the past 3 seasons, as he’s had 3 straight seasons of at least 80 catches for 1200 yards and 12 touchdowns. He hasn’t missed a game in those 3 seasons and has caught 273 passes for 3935 yards and 41 touchdowns in that time period. Last season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked wide receiver and he was franchise tagged by the Cowboys as a result. You can bet the 49ers would love to have a player like this.
12. San Diego Chargers- MLB NaVorro Bowman (Penn State)
It might be easy to forget because he just missed the entire season with a torn ACL, but Bowman is one of the best linebackers in the NFL when healthy, grading out 1st, 6th, and 1st among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. The injury certainly hurts his long-term projection, but he’s only going into his age 27 season and he has a solid chance of continuing his dominant level of play into the future. He would have gone higher here if not for the injury and could be a value pick at 12 for a San Diego team that used a 3rd round pick on Donald Butler in the original 2010 draft.
13. Philadelphia Eagles- DE Jason Pierre-Paul (Central Florida)
The Eagles drafted Brandon Graham here originally. It wasn’t that Graham was a bad player, but the Eagles never really utilized him properly in terms of giving him enough playing time. In this redo, they land a dominant edge rusher who they would have had no problem getting on to the field. Aside from an injury plagued 2013 season, JPP has been one of the best 4-3 defensive ends in the league over the past 4 seasons, grading out 6th in 2011, 3rd in 2012, and 7th in 2014, earning him the franchise tag this off-season. Brandon Graham, meanwhile, had to settle for a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal back in Philadelphia.
14. Seattle Seahawks- S Kam Chancellor (Virginia Tech)
There might be better players available, but I think the Seahawks would like to keep their defense together at all costs in this re-draft and they do that here by taking Kam Chancellor, originally a 5th round pick, to stay paired with Earl Thomas, who they had to draft 6th to keep, rather than being able to take him here. The cost is left tackle Russell Okung, but he’s missed 21 games with injury in 5 seasons and, while he was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked offensive tackle in 2012, that’s the only season of his career where he’s graded out above average. Chancellor, meanwhile, has made 62 of 64 possible starts in the past 4 seasons, while grading out 5th, 20th, 12th, and 20th among safeties.
15. New York Giants- DT Geno Atkins (Georgia)
Here’s another guy that would have been much higher if not for injury. Atkins looked like one of the best defensive players in football following the 2012 season, grading out 7th among defensive tackles as a rookie in 2010, despite playing just 356 snaps as a reserve, and then finishing #1 in both 2011 and 2012 as he became a starter. Atkins, who agreed to a 5-year, 55 million dollar extension before the 2013 season, looked on his way to a similar year in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked defensive tackle through 8 games before tearing his ACL in the 9th game of the season. He finished 10th on the season on 458 snaps.
In 2014, he didn’t seem like the same player, grading out just 20th at his position, but that’s still solid and he’s only going into his age 27 season so he could still become the dominant interior defensive linemen he once was again. He could prove to be a value pick for the Giants at 15 and help them make up for the loss of Jason Pierre-Paul.
16. Tennessee Titans- DE Greg Hardy (Mississippi)
Unlike guys like Bowman, Gronkowski, and Atkins, Hardy’s career was derailed by off-the-field issues, rather than injuries. Hardy broke out as one of the top 4-3 defensive ends in the game in 2012 and 2013, grading out 6th and 2nd respectively at his position in those two seasons, earning him the franchise tag for the 2014 season. However, Hardy was arrested for and convicted of domestic violence that off-season and, while the NFL could not suspend him as he was appealing the verdict, Hardy lasted just one game into 2014 before public pressure forced the Panthers to suspend him with pay for the rest of the season. The Panthers essentially paid him 13.1 million for 1 game in 2014.
Hardy got the charges dropped on a technicality and is expected to return to the field in 2015, though he could face a short suspension first, after signing a heavily incentive laden deal with the Dallas Cowboys. The Titans take him here as a higher upside defensive end, rather than the safer Derrick Morgan. Hardy, only 27, is one of the best defensive players in football when healthy and has minimal injury history.
17. San Francisco 49ers- G Mike Iupati (Idaho)
Here’s another team that sticks with their original pick. Iupati has graded out in the top-14 at his position on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the 5 seasons he’s been in the league, with the exception coming in an injury plagued 2013, when he still graded out above average. Despite that injury plagued 2013 season, he’s missed just 4 games in 5 seasons, all coming in 2013. The Cardinals rewarded him with a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal this off-season, poaching him from division rival San Francisco.
Maurkice Pouncey, who the Steelers originally drafted in the spot, is overrated, so let’s give the Steelers a different player. I was originally going to give them Jason Worilds here, their original 2nd round pick and a player who turned into a valuable starter for the Steelers in 2013 and 2014, but his decision to make an early retirement after 5 seasons in the league puts a damper on his long-term value, so let’s give the Steelers the next best edge rusher available.
That’s Junior Galette, who originally went undrafted, but has turned into one of the better edge rushers in the game over the past 2 seasons, grading out 12th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 and 4th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2014. He’s not a late bloomer either as he graded out above average as a pass rusher in reserve roles in both 2011 and 2012. Like Worilds, Galette would provide valuable depth behind an aging James Harrison and an injury prone LaMarr Woodley early in his career and start for them in 2013, 2014, and beyond.
19. Atlanta Falcons- DE Carlos Dunlap (Florida)
The Falcons have been searching for pass rush help for years, really since missing on Jamaal Anderson 8th overall in 2007, and have especially needed it over the past 2 seasons with John Abraham gone, as they’ve combined for just 54 sacks, fewest in the NFL over that time period. Dunlap would add to their pass rush and he’s also a great player against the run. A very consistent player, Dunlap has graded out 21st, 4th, 8th, 9th, and 15th among 4-3 defensive ends in 5 seasons in the league.
20. Houston Texans- CB Alterraun Verner (UCLA)
The Texans drafted Kareem Jackson originally here and they do like him, as evidenced by the 4-year, 34 million dollar deal they gave him to keep him long-term this off-season, after he graded out 11th among on Pro Football Focus cornerbacks in 2014. However, he’s not as consistent as Verner, who has graded out 21st, 11th, 25th, 13th, and 7th in 2010 through 2014 respectively. Much of that is because he’s arguably the best run stopping cornerback in football, but he holds up in coverage as well and his run play is still valuable. Jackson, meanwhile, has graded above average in just 2 of 5 seasons and still commanded a more expensive deal in free agency, as Verner signed a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal with the Buccaneers last off-season.
21. Cincinnati Bengals- DT Jared Odrick (Penn State)
The Bengals, who are seemingly always drafted 21st, originally used this pick on Jermaine Gresham, who never lived up to the expectations and, as of this writing, is still unsigned as a free agent in his first trip to the open market. The Bengals miss out on Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, who they drafted in the 2nd and 4th rounds respectively, but they still add to their defensive line here.
Odrick’s career started off on the wrong foot as he was limited to 22 snaps as a rookie in 2010 by injury, struggled in his first year as a starter in 2011 as a 3-4 defensive end, and then struggled even more in 2012 as a 4-3 defensive end, grading out 59th out of 62 eligible at his position that year. However, the Dolphins moved him back to his natural position of 4-3 defensive tackle in 2013 and the results have been great. He was 16th at his position in 2013 and then 19th in 2014, earning him a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar deal from the Jaguars this off-season. With full hindsight, the Bengals draft him here and leave him at his natural position of 4-3 defensive tackle.
22. Denver Broncos- S TJ Ward (Oregon)
The Broncos had a big need at safety going into 2010 as Renaldo Hill and Brian Dawkins were their starters and they were going into their age 32 and age 37 seasons respectively. The Broncos used a 2nd round pick on Rahim Moore in 2011, but they only filled one of their holes at safety. They didn’t fill the other one until they signed TJ Ward in free agency before the 2014 season. Here they get him earlier. Ward, a 2010 2nd round pick, has graded out 32nd, 14th, 6th, 4th, and 32nd respectively among safeties in 5 seasons in the league.
23. Green Bay Packers- OLB Derrick Morgan (Georgia Tech)
The Packers struck gold with Clay Matthews in the 1st round in 2009, but were seeking an edge rushing complement for him for years until they signed Julius Peppers last off-season. Peppers played well in 2014, but he’s going into his age 35 season in 2015 so even he’s not a long-term solution. The Packers find a long-term solution here and someone who will prevent them from wasting a first round pick on Nick Perry in 2012.
Derrick Morgan’s career got off to a slow start as he was limited to 112 snaps by a torn ACL as a rookie in 2010 and struggled in his return from that injury in 2011, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 67 eligible. However, he’s graded out above average in each of the past three seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012, 11th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013, and 8th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014. Most importantly, he’s missed just 2 games over the past 4 seasons and doesn’t have any significant injuries on his record other than that torn ACL.
24. Dallas Cowboys- MLB Sean Lee (Penn State)
Lee, a 2nd round pick by the Cowboys in 2010, was really hard to place in this re-draft because he’s missed 34 games in 5 seasons in the league, including 31 in the last 3 seasons and all of 2014. The Cowboys are still expecting big things from him in 2015, but he’ll already be in his age 29 season and he’s coming off of a torn ACL, so that might be overly optimistic. However, when on the field, he’s absolutely one of the best linebackers in the NFL. He was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked middle linebacker in 15 games in 2011, 8th in just 6 games in 2012, and 7th in 11 games in 2013. Through 9 games (before the injury) in 2013, he was #1 at his position and he was 4th at his position through 5 games in 2012 before the injury.
I gave the Broncos someone they signed in free agency last off-season with the 22nd overall pick and I do that again here at 25. Sanders was nothing special for the first 4 seasons of his career in Pittsburgh, which is why he’s still available here, but that all changed when he went to Denver and met Peyton Manning. In 2014, Sanders finished 5th in the league in receiving yards (1409), 12th in touchdowns (9), and 4th in catches (101) and it wasn’t just Manning. Sanders graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked wide receiver in his own right, including 3rd in pass catching grade. For a team that wasn’t able to keep Demaryius Thomas in this re-draft, he’s a very important addition here at 25.
26. Arizona Cardinals- OLB Jerry Hughes (TCU)
The Cardinals have spent a lot of mid round picks trying to fix their edge rush since 2010, starting with O’Brien Schofield (4th round) in 2010. He was followed by Sam Acho (4th round) in 2011, Alex Okafor (4th round) in 2013, and Kareem Martin (3rd round) in 2014. Here’s a premium pick who is actually a long-term solution.
Hughes is a late bloomer, which is why he’s available this late. He was a bust in Indianapolis as a first round pick in 2010, playing a combined 240 snaps in 2010 and 2011 and then struggling in his first serious action in 2012, grading out 25th out of 34 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers. However, after the Bills acquired him after that season for basically nothing, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and their 14th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2014, before re-signing for 45 million over 5 years this off-season.
27. New England Patriots- DT LaMarr Houston (Texas)
The Patriots miss out on Devin McCourty in the re-draft, but this draft is deep enough that they’re still able to add a valuable piece to their defense. The Patriots have been looking for an interior complement to Vince Wilfork really since they traded Richard Seymour and now that Wilfork is also gone, that need has become even bigger and they are banking on 2014 1st round pick Dominique Easley staying healthy. Houston fills the need earlier and gives them a versatile player that can play inside and outside in both a 3-4 and a 4-3, something Belichick will love. Before a season that ended early with a torn ACL in 2014, Houston graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked, 11th ranked, and 13th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively.
28. Miami Dolphins- S Reshad Jones (Georgia)
The Dolphins drafted Jones in the 4th round in 2010 originally, but he’s been a solid player for them, so they use their 1st round pick here to keep him. Jones has made 56 starts for the Dolphins over the past 2 seasons and, while he’s been inconsistent, grading out below average in 2 of those seasons, he’s graded out above average in 2 of the last 3 seasons, including 3rd in 2012 and 3rd in 2014.
29. New York Jets- WR Golden Tate (Notre Dame)
The common narrative is that Golden Tate didn’t have a breakout year until 2014, the first season of a 5-year, 31 million dollar deal with the Detroit Lions, when he finished 7th in receiving yards with 1331 yards (7th in the NFL), after never previously topping 1000 yards. However, when Tate signed that deal, I thought it was a steal for Detroit because Eric Decker got 36.25 million over that same length of time last off-season.
That’s because, while Decker put up bigger receiving numbers, Tate was actually comparable on a per route basis in 2011, 2012, and 2013, despite generally having worse quarterback play (Tarvaris Jackson and Russell Wilson vs. Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, and Peyton Manning). Decker averaged 1.28, 1.80, and 2.03 yards per route run in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively, as opposed to 1.33, 1.80, and 2.01 for Tate, whose numbers were kept down by a run heavy offense in Seattle. In fact, Tate’s 2.13 yards per route run average in 2014 was barely a career high.
Tate graded out 16th among wide receivers in pass catching grade in 2014, but he actually did that exact same thing in 2012 and 2013. He should see his production decrease in 2015 with Calvin Johnson healthy for a full season, but he’s still arguably the best #2 receiver in the league and he’s a good value here for a Jets team that has had all sorts of issues with their wide receivers in recent years.
30. Detroit Lions- DE Everson Griffen (USC)
When Everson Griffin got a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar deal from the Vikings last off-season, it was a head-scratcher as Griffen had made just 1 career start. I didn’t like the move other as, while he had 14 sacks in 2012 and 2013 despite being a reserve, he actually played as much as some starters in terms of pass rush snaps with 423 pass rush snaps played in 2012 and 449 pass rush snaps played in 2013.
He only ranked 29th out of 62 eligible in pass rush efficiency among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012 and only ranked 21st out of 52 eligible in pass rush efficiency among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 36th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012 and 19th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013. While it was an overly speculative deal, Griffen responded well, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 16 starts. He’s definitely an above average starter, albeit a late bloomer, and would be a good fit for the Lions here as Kyle Vanden Bosch was on the decline, going into his age 32 season in 2010.
31. Indianapolis Colts- OT Jared Veldheer (Hillsdale)
The Colts drafted Anthony Castonzo in the 1st round in 2011 and he’s been solid on the left side, but here they get help earlier and add someone who could be a bookend for Castonzo long-term, which would save them from giving Gosder Cherilus a 5-year, 34.5 million dollar deal, as they did two off-seasons ago. Aside from an injury plagued 2013 season, Veldheer has been one of the better left tackles in the league over the past 4 seasons, grading out 16th in 2011, 15th in 2012, and 9th in 2014. The Cardinals gave him a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal last season after his injury plagued 2013 season and he’ll continue making that deal look like a steal as long as he stays healthy. He’s an excellent value at this point, further evidence of how deep this draft was.
32. New Orleans Saints- DE Brandon Graham (Michigan)
Graham was a first round pick by the Eagles in 2010, but he was limited to 491 snaps in his first 2 seasons combined by injuries. However, he played well when on the field in those 2 seasons and he had somewhat of a breakout year in 2012. He didn’t get a ton of playing time (435 snaps), which is why it’s hard to call it a true breakout year, but he still graded out 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends that season, despite the limited playing time.
The Eagles moved to a 3-4 in 2013, which Graham wasn’t seen as a good fit for, so he only saw 331 snaps, but he still graded out 15th at his position, making it two straight years where no one played fewer snaps than him and graded out better at his position. In 2014, he was still the 3rd outside linebacker, but he played ahead of 1st round pick Marcus Smith all year, set a career high in snaps played with 524 snaps and graded out 3rd among 3-4 outside linebackers. For the third straight year, no one graded out better at his position on fewer snaps.
Scheme versatile, Graham was a great value for the Eagles on a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal this off-season and I think his most productive years are still ahead of him as I expect him to get more playing time going forward. He’ll fill a need for a Saints team that needed young pass rushers (they drafted Cameron Jordan in the 1st round in the following year) and I think they would have utilized him better earlier in his career than Philadelphia did, with full hindsight.
There was talk that the Saints would have to cut Jahri Evans to free up cap space to sign their rookie class. Evans was once one of the best guards in the NFL. From 2007-2013, he graded out in the top-30 among guards on Pro Football Focus in 7 straight years and the top-9 in 5 of those 7 years, maxing out at #1 overall in 2009. However, Evans slipped all the way to 46th out of 78 eligible in 2014 and, going into his age 32 season, didn’t seem to be worth his 7.5 million dollar salary for 2015, especially since the Saints could save 6 million dollars immediately on the cap and have him off their cap completely for 2016.
The Saints will not be doing that as this extension ensures he’ll stay a Saint, while still saving the Saints 4 million on the cap immediately. That’s the upside, the downside is Evans will still make 6 million dollars annually over the life of this contract and all money that’s paid out to him will show up on the cap at some point so he can’t be off of their cap completely for 2016. The 6 million dollar annual salary isn’t that bad, except for that the Saints guaranteed him 9.5 million so he’s assured to be on the roster for at least the next two seasons at a combined total of 12 million dollars. I understand why the Saints did this as they don’t want to keep bleeding talent and Evans could easily bounce back in 2015, but it’s risky to give a guy in his 30s off of a down year guaranteed money two years out into the future.
Trade for Tampa Bay: Goldson topped my list of cap casualty candidates for the Buccaneers. In fact, I was confused why he wasn’t cut earlier in the off-season, a move that would have saved the Buccaneers 4 million in cash and cap space. The Buccaneers signed Goldson to a 5-year, 41.25 million dollar contract 2 off-seasons ago and he proceeded to be one of the worst safeties in the game over the past 2 seasons. Goldson was Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked safety out of 86 eligible in 2013 and their 87th ranked safety out of 88 eligible in 2014. He was better before signing that deal, back when he was in San Francisco, grading out 20th in 2012, but that’s still one of only two seasons in his career that he’s graded out above average.
Turns out there was a reason why the Buccaneers didn’t cut him earlier in the off-season. They thought they could get something for him and it turns out they could have. The compensation they get in this trade, a swap of their 7th round pick in 2016 for a 6th round pick that same year, is miniscule, but I still credit them for getting something for a guy who should not be on anyone’s roster at a 4 million dollar salary (the Buccaneers will pay the guaranteed portion of his salary, 4 million, as the terms of this trade).
Trade for Washington: While I think this was a great move for the Buccaneers, I think it’s the exact opposite for the Redskins. The Redskins had a serious need at the safety position, but that doesn’t mean they have to go out and pay 4 million and give up something in next year’s draft for a year of Dashon Goldson (he’ll be owed 8 million non-guaranteed in 2016). If the Redskins had signed Goldson to a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal, I wouldn’t have given it a good grade either. This is the same thing. Goldson simply isn’t a starting caliber player in the NFL anymore, especially going into his age 31 season.
McDonald was cut by the 49ers mid-season last year, even though he was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 defensive end through 14 games. There’s a reason for that as McDonald was accused of violence against women twice in a 6 or so month span. However, the charges never stuck either time and he’s now suing his accuser, which suggests he’s not trying to hide from anything that happened. That alone doesn’t prove he didn’t do anything, but it’s never been proven that he did anything either.
With that in mind, I like this deal. It’s very low risk outside of possible PR concerns. McDonald’s base salary is the veteran’s minimum and he can make maximum 1.5 million, a steep decline from the 4.9 million he would have made in 2015 if not for the accusations. On the field, McDonald is worth much closer to 4.9 million than 1.5 million. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he’s been an every down starter for the 49ers over the past 4 seasons and he’s graded out above average in his last 5 seasons. In Chicago, he reunites with Vic Fangio, his defensive coordinator in San Francisco and fills a significant need at 3-4 defensive end. This was a good move by the Bears.