Steven Lourie

Mar 242015
 

From 2007-2012, Dwayne Bowe caught 415 passes for 5728 yards and 39 touchdowns in 88 games in his career, despite playing with the likes of Brodie Croyle, Damon Huard, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Cassel, Tyler Palko, Kyle Orton, and Brady Quinn at quarterback. That earned him a 5-year, 56 million dollar deal, but it’s been all downhill for Bowe over the past 2 seasons since signing that deal. Despite playing with Alex Smith over the past two seasons, who has been easily the best quarterback he’s had in his career, but Bowe has put up 57/673/5 and 60/754/0 slash lines in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

I thought he was a nice buy low candidate on the open market this off-season, but the Browns don’t seem to know what that means. This deal will pay Bowe 12.5 million over the next 2 seasons, an annual average of 6.25 million. That means that Bowe will still be the 18th highest paid wide receiver in the NFL, which is ridiculous considering he hasn’t been good since 2012, he’s going into his age 31 season, and he’s gotten criticism for his work ethic in recent years. Something in the 2-year, 8 million dollar range with 4 million guaranteed was what I was expecting and a deal that would have been much more appropriate.

There’s bounce back potential for him, but, given how much they’re paying him, there’s little upside on this deal. I get that the Browns had a need at wide receiver and money to spend, but that’s no excuse for an overpay like this, especially considering Jabaal Sheard, one of the Browns’ best defensive players last year, signed for cheaper than this in New England this off-season. Bowe could take away valuable practice and game reps from a rookie on a young team next season. The worst part might be that the Browns, for whatever reason, guaranteed 9 million. Because Bowe is unlikely to be cut after 1 year and 9 million, that basically means this 2-year, 12.5 million dollar deal is essentially fully guaranteed. It’s a borderline hilariously bad contract this far into free agency.

Grade: D

Mar 242015
 

The Broncos were not expected to re-sign free safety Rahim Moore this off-season (and they didn’t). That’s because the Broncos already had big contract defensive backs in their secondary around the free safety spot, in the form of Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, and TJ Ward. However, the Broncos did need a replace for Moore, who signed with the Texans on a surprisingly cheap 3-year, 12 million dollar deal that I thought was one of the better values of free agency. Stewart comes even cheaper than Moore, as the total value of this deal (4.5 million over 2 years) is similar to the annual value of Moore’s deal, though that’s with good reason as he doesn’t nearly have Moore’s upside.

However, he’s a solid cheap replacement whose deficiencies can be masked by the rest of this secondary. Stewart, a 2010 undrafted free agent, was forced into a starting role too early in 2011, grading out 82nd out of 87 eligible safeties that season. Stewart has rehabbed his value in the last two seasons though. In 2013, he graded out only slightly below average on 583 snaps and then in 2014 he graded out above average for the first time since his rookie season on 782 snaps (14 starts). He’s a fringe starter, but he’s a solid, cheap signing by a team that has a lot of talent all over the field that they have to fit under the cap in the next couple of off-seasons.

Grade: B+

Mar 222015
 

Harrison was reportedly choosing between Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Even though his former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is now in Tennessee, Pittsburgh always seemed like the most logical choice for Harrison. Pittsburgh is the better of the two teams. They offer the easiest path to playing time, as he’d be stuck behind big ticket free agents Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo. Pittsburgh has a real lack of talent at 3-4 outside linebacker following Jason Worilds’ retirement and Harrison should be the starter opposite the inconsistent Jarvis Jones. A return to Pittsburgh also meant a return to the team where he’s played 10 of his 11 career seasons and would give him a chance to add to his Steeler legacy.

Given all of that, this is the right move by Harrison and a great move by the Steelers, who would have been stuck starting career reserve Arthur Moats opposite Jones with little to no proven depth at the position. Harrison gets added to an outside linebacker crew that should feature him, Jones, Moats, and likely an early round rookie. The Steelers’ depth problems at outside linebacker were why the Steelers re-sign Harrison last season in the first place. Harrison was out of the league to start last season, but he rejoined the Steelers for week 4 after they needed help at the rush linebacker position and he proved to be a huge pickup, grading out 10th at his position on just 439 snaps. No one played fewer snaps at his position and graded out better.

He’s going into his age 37 season so the end of the road is right around the corner, but he proved last season that he still has something left in the tank. He has graded out above average in every season in Pro Football Focus’ history (since 2007), including last season and a 2013 season with the Bengals where he was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker on just 383 snaps as a base run stopping outside linebacker. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position that season, making it two different seasons that could be said about him and at two different positions. Harrison will get more than the minimum this season, but he deserves it and the Steelers are still hardly breaking the bank for him. This deal is worth 2.75 million over 2 years with nothing guaranteed beyond a 500K signing bonus so it’s low risk and pretty much all upside.

Grade: A

Mar 222015
 

Shane Vereen was a 2nd round pick by the Patriots in 2011. Vereen saw just 188 snaps in 2011 and 2012 combined, but he was expected to be a big part of their post-Aaron Hernandez offense in 2013. He was when he was on the field, but he missed 8 games with injury. He caught 47 passes for 427 yards and 3 touchdowns on 66 targets on 200 routes run, an average of 2.14 yards per route run that was 2nd only to Darren Sproles among running backs, very impressive numbers in 8 games. Going into 2014, he was expected to put up big receiving numbers, assuming he stayed healthy. He did stay healthy, playing all 16 games, but in that sense, his 52 catches were a disappointment. He’s a solid pass catching running back, but he’s not much of a traditional running back (4.18 yards per carry on 217 career carries) and 16 million over 4 years seems like a little much for him.

Grade: C+

Mar 222015
 

Malcolm Smith follows his former linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. to Oakland, where he is now the defensive coordinator. That makes sense, but it’s not clear what his role will be in Oakland. The Raiders paid him 7 million over 2 years, which suggests he’ll be a starter, after spending most of his career as a reserve in Seattle. Free agent signing Curtis Lofton is locked in at middle linebacker, while Khalil Mack is locked in as the two-down linebacker in base packages (moving to the defensive line in sub packages as an edge rusher). That leaves Smith to compete with Sio Moore, a 2013 3rd round pick who has been solid in 22 starts in his first 2 seasons in the NFL.

I don’t know if Smith can beat him out. Malcolm Smith was Super Bowl MVP in Super Bowl 47, one of the more anonymous Super Bowl MVP’s in NFL history. Smith played a good game, but there were more deserving candidates, as Smith didn’t even play half the snaps in that game (34 of 71). He just happened to make a few splash plays that we remember. Smith also wasn’t even a starter that season, playing just 490 snaps. He was still Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker that season, despite the limited action, with no one playing more snaps and grading out better. However, he’s still graded out above average in just 2 of 4 seasons and he’s only once played more than 286 snaps in a season. I don’t think he’s better than Moore, so this is an overpay and a bad match of team and player.

Grade: C+

Mar 212015
 

Louis Delmas looked like a promising young safety in 2009 and 2010, starting 30 games in his first 2 years in the league after the Lions drafted him in the 2nd round in 2009, grading out above average in both seasons. However, knee problems limited him to 19 games in 2011 and 2012 and he graded out below average in both of those seasons. He seemed to turn his career in 2013 (with the Lions) and 2014 (with the Dolphins), making 29 straight starts and playing decently as a starting safety, but he tore his ACL week 14 in 2014, a very serious concern given his injury history.

Given that, I’m surprised the Dolphins re-signed him this early in the off-season, though it’s obviously possible they know way more about the condition of his knee than I do. For what it’s worth, reports say that both Delmas and the Dolphins expect him to be ready for training camp, though that’s obviously a very preliminary estimate and there’s no guarantee that he’ll be the same player upon his return. I’m also surprised that Delmas got 3.5 million, the same amount he got from the Dolphins last off-season when he was coming off of a season in which he played all 16 games and graded out 25th at his position, rather than a season where he graded out 51st and tore his ACL. That doesn’t make it a bad deal, but it’s obviously a risky one and I feel like the Dolphins could have gotten him a little cheaper.

Grade: B-

Mar 212015
 

Herremans was one of several veterans cut or traded by the Eagles this off-season, in an effort to free up as much cap space as possible for free agency, in the first off-season that Chip Kelly has had control over the roster. Herremans was owed 4 million in 2015 and the Eagles saved 2.8 million on the cap immediately by letting him go. It was a smart move. Herremans is an accomplished veteran who has made 124 starts for the Eagles over the past 10 years since they drafted him in the 4th round in 2005, but he missed 8 games with injury in 2014 (making it 16 games missed over the last 3 seasons) and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 57th ranked guard out of 78 eligible.

Herremans was Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked guard in 2013, so he could bounce back in 2015, but he’s also going into his age 33 season. Also, the only reason Herremans graded out so high overall in 2013 was because he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked guard in run blocking. He struggled mightily in pass protection, grading out 79th out of 81 eligible in that aspect. In fact, Herremans hasn’t graded out above average in pass protection since 2009. He’s still a capable run blocker, but pass protection is more important in today’s NFL and it’s an area that Herremans has major issues in, especially at this stage of his career.

The Colts are giving Herremans significantly less than the Eagles were scheduled to be giving him. Herremans will make just 2.25 million this season, with another 1.25 million available in incentives. He also is only guaranteed a 500K signing bonus so if the Colts don’t like what they see when he shows up to training camp and he loses the starting right guard job, the Colts could move on from the rest of the 1.75 million they owe him with no penalty if they think that’s too much to pay to a reserve. It’s not a bad deal in that sense, but it’s not a particularly good deal either, especially for a team that needed real help at right guard.

Grade: B-

Mar 212015
 

The Eagles cut Cary Williams earlier this off-season, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not still a starting caliber player in the NFL. The Eagles were simply in the middle of a massive roster makeover and were cutting anyone that thought wasn’t worth his salary in an effort to free up as much cap space as possible for this off-season. The Eagles used some of their large amount of cap space this off-season to sign former Seattle cornerback Byron Maxwell to a gargantuan deal, which left Seattle needing a replacement for Maxwell. That’s where Williams comes in.

Williams was Pro Football Focus’ 49th ranked cornerback out of 108 eligible in 2014, not bad, but not worth his 6.5 million dollar salary, especially going into his age 31 season. He’s made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons in Philadelphia, but he’s graded out slightly below average in both seasons. Dating back to his final 2 seasons in Baltimore, Williams had made 64 starts in the last 4 seasons, grading out slightly below average in 2012 and slightly above average in 2013. He’s a consistent, but unspectacular cornerback who was being paid like an above average starter and going into his age 31 season. That’s why the Eagles cut him.

Given that, I think the Seahawks overpaid on this deal, giving him 18 million over 3 years, an average salary of 6 million that’s barely below that 6.5 million figure. He’s still being paid like an above average starter. Only 3.5 million of this deal is guaranteed, the signing bonus, but, barring something crazy happening, Williams will see 7 million in the first year of this deal, which is more than he would have gotten in Philadelphia.

Bringing in Tramon Williams would have been a better move. Williams is a year older, but he has a more impressive track record and he’s been just as durable and consistent. I know Williams commanded 7 million annually from the Browns, but I find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t have taken this exact deal from the Seahawks had they offered it to him, given that he’d make 7 million in the first year and that he’d have a significantly better chance of winning the Super Bowl in Seattle than in Cleveland. This is an overpay for Cary Williams.

Grade: C

Mar 212015
 

Kendrick Lewis started all 16 games for the Texans last season and has made 67 starts in 5 seasons in the NFL since the Chiefs drafted him in the 5th round in 2010. Given that, I’m surprised he signed in Baltimore where it’s not clear that he’ll be a starter in 2015. Will Hill is presumably locked in to one starting safety spot because of his talent, though he’s proven to be hard to trust in the past with his history of suspension and he’s technically still a restricted free agent so another team could sign him and the Ravens would have only the right of first refusal.

At the other safety spot, the Ravens have Matt Elam. Elam, a 2013 1st round pick, made all 16 starts as a rookie in 2013 and played decently, but he was a trainwreck in 2014, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 78th ranked safety out of 87 eligible on 411 snaps and getting benched mid-season for Darian Stewart. Stewart signed as a free agent in Denver this off-season and the fact that the Ravens brought in a replacement for Stewart with as much experience as Lewis has doesn’t suggest that the Ravens are confident in Elam’s long-term potential.

Not only am I surprised that Lewis went to a place like Baltimore where he wouldn’t be guaranteed a starting job. I am also surprise that he was only able to get 5.4 million over 3 years. Lewis struggled in his final 2 seasons in Kansas City in 2012 and 2013, but he bounced back last season in Houston and has now graded out above average in 3 of 5 seasons he’s been in the NFL. This is a very good value for a solid player who has a chance to make a real impact in Baltimore next season.

Grade: A

Mar 202015
 

Players who get slapped with the transition tag rarely get signed by another team. That’s because slapping a player with the transition tag generally means you want to keep that player around long-term and you’re willing to match close to any offer another team makes. Given that, you might guess that the Bills overpaid to land Charles Clay, originally given the transition tag by Buffalo’s divisional rival Miami. You’d be correct. This is a huge overpay, a big part of the reason why the Dolphins gave up on re-signing Clay earlier this off-season and why they declined to match within a day (their final offer was reportedly 27 million over 4 years).

This deal is worth 38 million over 5 years with gives Clay the 4th highest average salary in the NFL by a tight end, behind only Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas, and Rob Gronkowski. Clay has been a solid player in his 2 years as a starter in the NFL, grading out 34th in 2013 and 14th in 2014, but he’s hardly one of the top tight ends in the game. Clay’s replacement in Miami, Jordan Cameron, signed a deal for a similar amount annually (7.5 million annually) and he’s an inferior player, but just because that was a bad signing doesn’t mean this is a good signing.

On top of that, Cameron’s deal was over a much shorter period of time (2 years, 15 million) so it doesn’t hurt the Dolphins long-term as much as Clay’s deal does to the Bills. Clay’s deal has more guaranteed money (20 million) than Cameron’s deal does in total money and that figure doesn’t even really represent how much of this deal is essentially guaranteed. That’s because Clay will make 24.2 million over the first 2 years of this deal, a move designed to make it impossible for the Dolphins to keep Clay under the cap in 2015 and 2016.

Not only will Clay almost definitely see all of that money over the next 2 years even if it’s not all guaranteed (they won’t release him after 1 year and 20 million), but because he’s set to earn just 4.5, 4.6, and 4.7 million in 2017, 2018, and 2019 respectively, the only way he gets released is if he’s an absolute trainwreck. If he’s still a serviceable tight end in 2017-2019, he’ll see the entirety of this deal, even though it’s paying him much more than the average serviceable tight end overall. This is essentially a fully guaranteed 5 year, 38 million dollar deal, which will take him through his age 30 season in 2019. It’s a case of a team falling in love with an above average starter and doing everything they could to bring him in, regardless of the costs. This isn’t how good teams are built.

Grade: C-

Mar 202015
 

Patrick Robinson has essentially been a bust as a 2010 1st round pick, but it hasn’t been for lack of talent. He’s just missed 22 games in 5 seasons and had serious trouble consistently staying healthy and on the field. His best season came in 2011, when he played 15 games (7 starts) and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked cornerback, but that’s not the norm for him. In 2014, he played 624 snaps in 14 games, starting 6 of them, and grading out about average. That’s more par for the course.

That being said, this is a good move by the Chargers. In San Diego, he’ll be the 3rd cornerback behind Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett, playing outside in sub packages when Flowers moves inside to cover the slot. That’s appropriate for his skill set, as is his 2 million dollar salary on a 1-year deal (with another million available in playing time related incentives). Considering Shareece Wright, who was horrific as their 3rd cornerback last season, signed for 3 million in San Francisco this off-season, this is a very solid deal.

Grade: A-

Mar 182015
 

Rashean Mathis looked done after 2012, as he graded out below average in 2012, missed 11 games with injury in 2011 and 2012 combined, and was going into his age 33 season. He didn’t get signed until mid-August in 2013, but he turned back the clock in Detroit over the past 2 seasons, making 29 starts and grading out 26th in 2013 and 12th in 2014. He’s a risky signing because he’s going into his age 35 season in 2015 and could see his abilities fall off a cliff, but the Lions are barely paying him anything (3.5 million over 2 years with 750K guaranteed) and he’s a nice stopgap in their secondary.

Grade: A

Mar 182015
 

Greg Hardy was the free agent with the greatest risk/reward on the open market this off-season. There’s a reason he’s only getting signed more than a week after free agency started, after most of the top edge rushers signed within the first 2-3 days. Given that, I like how this deal was structured. How was this deal structured? Well, there is nothing guaranteed, nothing due at signing, and the base salary is the minimum of 745K.

Of course, Hardy can earn much more than that. He can make 1.311 million for attending off-season workouts. He’ll make about an additional 578,500 per game that he’s on the roster. That’s particularly helpful for the Cowboys because Hardy is likely to be suspended. If he had been given a big signing bonus, the Cowboys would be paying him more per game if he got a big suspension.

All in all, Hardy can make about 11.3 million this season if he plays all 16 games and attends all off-seasons workouts, though he’s unlikely to play all 16 games. On top of that, there are fairly lucrative incentives for sacks. Hardy will make an additional 500K if he gets 8 sacks, 1 million if he gets 10 sacks, 1.4 million if he gets 12 sacks and 1.8 million if he gets 14+ sacks. If Hardy plays all 16 games and gets 14+ sacks, he can make about 13.1 million, though that’s going to be unlikely given that he’ll probably be suspended.

The Cowboys are also not allowed to franchise tag Hardy next off-season so, if he stays clean and puts up big numbers this season, he’ll be set for a big payday next off-season. I like that Hardy was willing to bet on himself and take this kind of a deal, rather than taking a long-term deal that gives him more upfront financial security, but pays him 70-80% of what he’s worth. It shows that Hardy trusts himself to stay clean. It would have raised an eyebrow for me if Hardy had been willing to sign a long-term deal this off-season.

Overall, it’s a fairly low risk deal for the Cowboys financially and a good match of player and team. The Cowboys need defensive end help and Hardy, when right, is one of the best defensive ends in football. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013 and their 6th ranked in 2012 and he’s only going into his age 27 season. He’s obviously risky because of his off-the-field history, his looming suspension, and the fact that he could be rusty, having not played a game since week 1 of last season, but this deal handles that risk well. I can’t give this deal an A because the Cowboys take a PR hit by signing him, but, from a purely football standpoint, it’s a great deal.

Grade: A-

Mar 172015
 

This is exactly where I expected Owen Daniels to go this off-season. Daniels has played his whole career for Gary Kubiak, first in Houston where he was head coach and then Baltimore where he was offensive coordinator. It almost seemed too obvious that Daniels would follow Kubiak at Denver, where Kubiak is now the head coach and where they need a pass catching tight end, as Julius Thomas was expected to leave as a free agency this off-season (he did).

This deal was a little bit more than I was expecting though (12.25 million over 3 years, though with only 4.25 million guaranteed in the first year. Owen Daniels hasn’t played all 16 games in a season since 2008 and has missed 27 games over the past 6 seasons combined. He’s also going into his age 33 season. He did have a decent season in 2014, catching 48 passes for 527 yards and 4 touchdowns on 72 attempts (66.7%) and 410 routes run (1.29 yards per route run) in 15 games. He’s graded out above average as a pass catcher in each of the last 4 seasons and he’s a decent run blocker too. However, he’s just a borderline starter with little long-term upside and should have been paid like one. This misses a little.

Grade: B-

Mar 172015
 

Lance Kendricks was a 2nd round pick in 2011, but only caught 129 passes for 1388 yards and 13 touchdowns in 4 seasons with the Rams. He maxed out with 42 catches for 519 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2012, when he played 875 snaps, and largely served as a #2 tight end and blocking tight end over the past 2 seasons with Jared Cook in town. I’m a little surprised he re-signed with the Rams with Cook still in town. It’s a weak tight end market both in free agency and the draft so Kendricks had a decent chance to find starting work somewhere. I’m even more surprised by the price, as the Rams will pay him 18.5 million over the next 4 years with 10 million guaranteed. That’s a lot for a #2 tight end, especially considering Niles Paul got 6 million over 3 years with 2.25 million guaranteed from the Redskins.

Grade: C

Mar 172015
 

Trade for Saints: I’m a little confused why the Saints wanted to move Kenny Stills. I understand why they wanted to move Jimmy Graham and Ben Grubbs. The Saints were in salary cap hell and needed to get expensive players off their books. Stills, however, was still on a rookie deal, so he wasn’t taking up much cap space. He was also a valuable young asset in their receiving corps and someone they’ll have to replace (Marques Colston and Brandin Cooks are their only even somewhat proven wide receivers right now). They could do so with the 3rd round pick they received in this trade and if they do that they’d get someone under team control cheaply for 4 years instead of 2 like Stills, but there’s no guarantee that whoever the Saints draft in the 3rd round can be any good.

On top of that, the Saints took on Dannell Ellerbe in the trade. The Dolphins were desperate to get rid of Ellerbe and his 8.425 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and I’m shocked that they found a taker through trade. The Saints won’t be paying Ellerbe 8.425 million this season, as he renegotiated his contract as part of this trade, but they’ll still be paying him 4.8 million in 2015, fully guaranteed, which is too much for him.

Ellerbe was about as bad as a free agent signing can be. Ellerbe signed a 5-year, 34.25 million dollar deal with the Dolphins two off-seasons ago and proceeded to grade out as Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. He moved to outside linebacker for 2014, but ended up missing all but 18 snaps with a hip injury, which actually probably helped the Dolphins, considering how bad he was in 2013 and how well Jelani Jenkins played in his absence in his first season as a starter. Ellerbe was essentially 14 million guaranteed down the toilet.

The deal didn’t make any sense for the start.  Ellerbe, a 2009 undrafted free agent, maxed out at 456 snaps in a season from 2009-2011, but he had a solid 2012 season, grading out 14th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 667 regular season snaps and then followed that up with a strong post-season, en route to a Super Bowl victory by the Ravens. That’s what got him paid, but he was a one year wonder that wasn’t worth his contract even at his best.

He remains a one-year wonder to this day, but it’s still getting him paid, even going into his age 30 season. In addition to 4.8 million guaranteed in 2015, he has non-guaranteed salaries of 5.2 million in each of the next 2 seasons, making the total value of this deal 15.2 million over 3 years. If the Saints had signed him to this deal in free agency, I probably would have given it a C or a C-. When you couple that with the swap of Stills for a 3rd round pick, this was not a good trade at all for the Saints.

Grade: D

Trade for Dolphins: This trade was all about getting lighter for the Dolphins, as they have to fit Ndamukong Suh’s contract under the cap going forward. Obviously, getting rid of Ellerbe’s contract was a big deal, as that saves them 5.65 million on the cap immediately and gets him off their cap completely by 2016. They would have cut him anyway, but credit them for somehow finding someone who saw him as a value through trade, even at a reduced salary.

Bringing in Stills to replace Mike Wallace is the bigger benefit of this deal. This move allowed them to trade Wallace to the Vikings (along with a 7th round pick) for a 5th round pick, a move that saved them an additional 5.5 million on the cap for 2015 and gets him off their cap completely by 2016. Between getting rid of Ellerbe and Wallace, they save over 11 million in cap space immediately and even more long-term.

The cost of a 3rd round pick is fairly steep, but Stills is more than worth it (especially since they picked up a 5th rounder in the Wallace trade). Kenny Stills caught 32 passes for 641 yards and 5 touchdowns as a 5th round rookie in 2013. While he graded out below average as a rookie, he became a much more complete receiver in 2014, catching 63 passes for 931 yards and 3 touchdowns and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked wide receiver.

He could immediately be a significantly cheaper upgrade on Mike Wallace, who hasn’t graded out above average since 2011. And the best part is, Stills is only going into his age 23 season, so he should only continue to get better. Even taking all the other financial stuff of it, the odds were low that the Dolphins were going to find someone with as bright of a future as Stills in the 3rd round of this year’s draft and that more than makes up for the fact that Stills is only under team control cheaply for 2 more years, while it would have been 4 for a rookie.

Grade: A

Mar 172015
 

Steve Johnson had three straight thousand yard seasons from 2010-2012, despite questionable quarterback play in Buffalo. However, in the past 2 seasons he’s barely combined for 1000 yards, catching a combined 77 passes for 1032 yards and 6 touchdowns. That might lead you to think that he’s struggled in back-to-back seasons. That’s not entirely true. While he did struggle in 2013, he was simply underutilized last season in San Francisco.

Johnson was incredibly efficient in limited action last season for the 49ers. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked wide receiver on just 305 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher. He caught 35 passes for 435 yards on 49 attempts (71.4%) and 204 routes run (2.13 yards per route run). He’s also graded out above average in 4 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus. Johnson should be better utilized in San Diego and has a chance to put up some solid overall numbers again.

Given that, I like this signing. It’s relatively cheap (10.5 million over 3 years) with likely little to no money guaranteed beyond 2015. It’s also a good fit as the Chargers needed to replace Eddie Royal slot receiver, who signed a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal with the Bears. Johnson comes cheaper than Royal would have (and Royal signed a reasonable deal) and should be able to come close to matching Royal’s 2014 production 62/778/7. On top of that, while he has plenty of experience in the slot, he’s not a pure slot receiver like Royal was so he can play outside if needed, in the likely event of a Malcom Floyd injury (given his age and history).

Grade: A-

Mar 172015
 

Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are a solid edge rusher duo, regardless of scheme, but they had no depth behind them in 2013, which is why they played 1142 and 1114 snaps respectively, 1st and 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends in snaps played respectively. The Patriots added Akeem Ayers for depth purposes in 2014 when Chandler Jones got hurt and he did well in that role, but he left as a free agent so the Patriots had a need for another edge rusher, especially with Ninkovich going into his age 31 season and coming off the first season in which he graded out below average in 5 seasons as a starter.

Enter Jabaal Sheard. 5.5 million annually is a lot for a rotational player, but it’s a solid value for Sheard, especially considering it’s just a two-year deal and only 5.5 million is guaranteed. Sheard, a 2011 2nd round pick, has emerged as a solid edge rusher, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and 16th ranked in 2014. However, this was a loaded free agent class for edge rushers so some above average player was going to get the short end of the stick with a deal like this. That happened to be Sheard and the Patriots are the beneficiaries, once again showing it pays to be patient in free agency.

The Patriots are widely assumed to be moving back to a 4-3 this season after the departure of Vince Wilfork. Bill Belichick is known for catering his scheme to his players and his defensive players fit a 4-3 better than a 3-4 right now. Sheard has experience playing in both a 4-3 and 3-4. He graded out below average in both of his seasons as a 4-3 defensive end, but those were also his first two seasons in the league, so he won’t necessarily struggle back in a 4-3 in New England. I believe they’ll find a creative way to use him. Perhaps they’ll move Rob Ninkovich back to the Von Miller type role as an outside linebacker in base packages who rushes the passer from the edge in sub packages. That would make Sheard a starter opposite Chandler Jones at defensive end in base packages and the bigger Jones could then rush the passer from the interior in sub packages.

Grade: A-

Mar 162015
 

Eddie Royal caught 91 passes for 980 yards and 5 touchdowns as a 2nd round rookie in 2008, but combined for just 138 catches for 1361 yards and 5 touchdowns from 2009-2012 combined. Royal bounced back over the past 2 seasons though, catching 47 passes for 631 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2013 and 62 catches for 778 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2014, grading out above average in both seasons.

Now he reunites with Jay Cutler, with whom he put up those big rookie numbers. That alone doesn’t ensure he’ll put up those numbers again, but it definitely helps his chance of continuing his strong play from San Diego (and, for what it’s reason, he and Cutler are reportedly great friends). He also fills a big need in Chicago following the trade of Brandon Marshall, as the Bears really only had Marquess Wilson, a talented, but unproven 2013 7th round pick, after Alshon Jeffery on the depth chart previous. Royal is pretty much a pure slot receiver, which should assure that Wilson gets a chance as the starter opposite Jeffery, but he’ll help this receiving corps. At 15 million over 3 years with 10 million guaranteed, it’s a solid value.

Grade: B

Mar 162015
 

After being quite for most of the off-season, the Browns decided to add two 30+ year old free agents this off-season. Starks’ deal isn’t as (2 years, 8 million) as Tramon Williams’ deal, but there’s a reason for that. While Williams has yet to show any real signs of decline going into his age 32 season, Starks has. He graded out below average on 544 snaps last season, the first time he had graded out below average in Pro Football Focus’ history, since 2007.

Starks could bounce back in 2015, but, going into his age 32 season, it’s more likely that his best days are behind him. That’s why the Dolphins cut him, to save 5 million in cash and cap space. The Browns get him slightly cheaper than that, there’s no guaranteed money beyond 2015, and he’ll provide valuable depth as a 3-4 defensive end behind Desmond Bryant, John Hughes. It’s not a bad move, but it’s not a move I love either.

Grade: B

Mar 162015
 

Cecil Shorts, a 2011 4th round pick, once looked like a very promising young receiver. After a rookie year where he didn’t see the field much (179 total snaps and 2 catches), Shorts caught 55 passes for 979 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2012. He was even better than those numbers suggested, as he did that despite missing 2 games with injuries and not playing more than 50% of his team’s snaps until the team’s 6th game of the season. He ran 423 routes on the season, giving him 2.31 yards per route run, 8th in the NFL, and he did that despite playing with the likes of Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne at quarterback.

However, injuries prevented him from taking that next step. He missed 6 games with injury in 2013 and 2014 combined and averaged 60 catches for 667 yards and 2 touchdowns per season. He’s never played a 16 game season in his career, playing 50 out of a possible 64 games in his career and being limited in many others. He’s talented and his numbers undoubtedly would have been better if he played the first 4 years of his career with even a competent quarterback, but durability is a big concern.

That being said, I like this deal because it doesn’t pay him very much. Shorts will make just 6 million over the next 2 seasons if this deal goes to its conclusion and only the 2.5 million dollar signing bonus is guaranteed. Shorts fills a big need at wide receiver too, after the Texans cut Andre Johnson. His addition doesn’t mean they’re done adding at wide receiver because #3 receiver Damaris Johnson was Pro Football Focus’ 107th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible last season. I still expect them to draft a receiver early. However, Shorts will provide a nice stopgap as rookie wide receivers often take a year or two to adjust to the NFL (last year’s class notwithstanding).

Grade: A-

Mar 162015
 

The Patriots release Vince Wilfork earlier this off-season, but it wasn’t for lack of talent. Wilfork graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season, including 6th against the run, which is his specialty. He was released because he simply wasn’t worth his 8.5 million dollar salary, going into his age 34 season. The Texans are paying him significantly less than that, as Wilfork will make 5 million in 2015. It’s also a relatively low risk deal, as there isn’t any guaranteed money beyond 2015 (he can make 4 million in 2016 in the 2nd year of this 2-year, 9 million dollar deal).

I also like the fit in Houston. This is where I expected him to end up since the Patriots released him. The Texans are building a mini-New England west in Houston (minus, obviously, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Head Coach Bill O’Brien was with New England for 5 years, including 2011 as offensive coordinator. The two quarterbacks competing for their starting job in 2015 (Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett) are both former Brady backups.

On the defensive side of things, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel was the Patriots’ defensive coordinator for 4 years, including Wilfork’s rookie year in 2004. Linebackers coach Mike Vrabel is a former teammate of Wilfork’s. Wilfork also fills a big need at nose tackle between JJ Watt and Jared Crick, as 2014 3rd round pick Louis Nix missed his entire rookie year with injury and hasn’t been healthy since his junior year at Notre Dame in 2012. Wilfork can also play 3-4 defensive end, but his run stopping abilities are best utilized on the nose in base packages. This is a solid move.

Grade: A-

Mar 162015
 

Given that we’re already going into the 2nd week of free agency, I did not expect Tramon Williams to get 7 million dollars annually. That doesn’t necessarily mean this is a bad deal. Williams is going into his age 32 season, but he should still be a solid starter next season. He’s not the player he was in 2009, when he graded out 9th, or 2010, when he graded out 8th, but he’s graded out above average in 6 straight seasons and made 95 of 96 starts over that time period.

I also like the fit in Cleveland. The Browns drafted Justin Gilbert in the first round last year, but he was a massive disappointment on and off the field in his first year in the league, grading out below average on just 373 snaps and getting suspended for the final game of the season for a violation of team rules. Meanwhile, fellow rookie K’Waun Williams played well on 341 snaps, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked cornerback. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better as Williams allowed just 4.91 yards per attempt into his coverage last season. However, it’s hard to trust him going forward given that he was undrafted a year ago and, best case scenario, he still only projects as a valuable slot cornerback.

Williams may be aging, but he’s still playing well and gives them good insurance outside opposite Joe Haden for at least a year. 7 million annually is a lot for an aging cornerback, but there probably isn’t much, if any money guaranteed beyond 2015 and the Browns have a fair amount of cap space to work with. Giving it to a proven player like Williams makes a lot more sense than giving it to unproven veterans like Jacksonville did (Jermey Parnell, Dan Skuta, and Davon House) and hoping that they found diamonds in the rough that the league let fall through the cracks. I said before free agency started that something around 3 years, 17 million, with 7 million guaranteed would be appropriate for him and this isn’t too far off.

Grade: B+

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Mar 152015
 

Given the size of this deal, 17 million over 4 years with 4.2 million guaranteed, suggests that the Buccaneers view Carter as a starter and an every down player. I think that’s a mistake based on his career play. The Cowboys drafted Bruce Carter in the 2nd round in 2011 despite the fact that he tore his ACL late in his final collegiate season at North Carolina. Carter was limited to 41 snaps as a rookie, but he looked on his way to a breakout 2nd season before a serious arm injury cut his season short. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked middle linebacker on 625 snaps and 11 starts.

Moving back to his natural position of 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013, many expected him to have a great season, but he did the opposite, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 35 eligible. In 2014, he was limited to 8 starts in 13 games and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 40 eligible. The potential he once appeared to have seems to have dissipated and he’s a borderline starting outside linebacker and an injury prone one at that, with 15 missed games in 4 seasons. This is an overpay.

The one thing that’s intriguing about this deal is that Carter could play middle linebacker in Tampa Bay, as the Buccaneers need an every down player at that spot, with Mason Foster expected to go elsewhere this off-season. They don’t need an every down outside linebacker because Lavonte David does that and the amount they’re paying him suggests they’re going to play him every down somewhere. Carter did play well at middle linebacker in 2012, but he’s never played inside in a 4-3. This contract is too much money to risk to find out anyway, even if there isn’t any guaranteed money beyond 2015.

Grade: C-

Mar 152015
 

Roy Helu only has 255 carries in 4 seasons since the Redskins drafted him in the 4th round in 2011, but he’s averaged 4.44 yards per carry and where he really provides value is as a 3rd down back. In 48 career games, Helu has 129 catches for 1152 yards and 3 touchdowns and he’s been a top-5 pass blocking running back in 2 of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league, extremely valuable in today’s NFL. I like the fit of him in Oakland with unproven, but promising back Latavius Murray atop their depth chart. Helu can complement Murray as a passing down back and has a decent chance to surpass his career high of 151 carries.

This deal, which pays him 4 million over 2 years, is a solid value, given that Shane Vereen and Reggie Bush both got 4-year, 16 million dollar deals as passing down backs. Helu is younger than Bush and comparable to Vereen, with arguably more upside as a traditional runner. He’s less explosive, but he’s the better in between the tackles runner at 5-11 215. This is a smart, cheap pickup that had a chance to help the Raiders in 2015.

Grade: A