Seattle Seahawks re-sign S Earl Thomas

The Seahawks have made Earl Thomas easily the highest paid safety in the NFL, giving him 10 million dollars annually over the course of this extension and guaranteeing that Thomas will make 27.725 million dollars. While the 40 million dollar total value of this contract isn’t a record, both the guaranteed money and the annual salary are records (for non-rookie contracts), surpassing the deal that Jairus Byrd got earlier this off-season from the Saints, which gave him 54 million over 6 years with 26.3 million guaranteed.

Some people consider Earl Thomas the top safety in the NFL. I disagree, in favor of Jairus Byrd. Byrd has graded out higher than Thomas on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons that Thomas has been in the league. Byrd was 3rd among safeties in 2011, 2nd in 2012, and 8th in 2013, only coming in 8th because he missed time with injury. Thomas, meanwhile, has never graded out higher than 8th, doing so in 2011, and finishing 9th in 2013.

There’s something to be said for the fact that Thomas is 3 years younger (only going into his age 25 season) and this deal only taking him until his age 29 season, while the Saints could theoretically have Byrd under contract until his age 33 season. Thomas has also never missed a game, while Byrd has missed 7 games in 5 seasons, including recently 5 games missed in 2013 with foot problems. However, Byrd is the best safety in the NFL, not Thomas.

The big difference: In 5 seasons, Byrd has missed 22 tackles, while Thomas has missed 55 tackles in 4 seasons, including 31 over the past 2 seasons alone. That might sound like splitting hairs, but when we’re talking about best safety in the NFL, that type of thing matters. Both provide excellent depth coverage, but Byrd is also a sound tackler, which is not something you can say about Thomas. Byrd is the best safety in the NFL, while Thomas is in the mix with guys like TJ Ward, Eric Weddle, Eric Berry, Devin McCourty, and Troy Polamalu, who are in that next group of safeties.

This isn’t a bad deal, especially since it doesn’t even take Thomas into his 30s, meaning there’s a good chance he plays out this entire contract (5 years total, including the 4 years of extension). Thomas is a very valuable part of a Super Bowl winning defense. However, he doesn’t deserve to be the highest paid safety in the NFL. The Seahawks have so much young talent that they’re going to get so expensive to keep together over the next few seasons.

Richard Sherman is next with a deal that is going to be worth 12+ million dollars yearly and then Russell Wilson with a deal that’ll probably pay him 20+ million dollars yearly. Those two will both deserve their contracts more than Thomas deserves this one. Bobby Wagner is another guy that could command big money soon, while Russell Okung, Byron Maxwell, and Cliff Avril are going into contract years. They already have big contracts given to Max Unger, Brandon Mebane, Kam Chancellor, Percy Harvin, Michael Bennett and Marshawn Lynch on their books. Overpaying guys, no matter how talented they are, is being financially irresponsible, which is not something the Seahawks can afford to be.

Grade: B-

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Dallas Cowboys re-sign DE Anthony Spencer

From 2008-2012, Anthony Spencer was a top-11 3-4 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons, including 4 as an every down starter and topping at #1 overall in 2012. As a result, he was franchise tagged by the Cowboys twice, but he played just 38 snaps on his 2nd franchise tag in 2013, missing most of the season with a knee injury. Between the knee injury and the fact that he’s going into his age 30 season, he was met with a cold market this off-season, remaining unsigned until late April and settling for 2 million on a one year prove it deal from the Cowboys.

That deal could end up being a complete steal for the Cowboys. Spencer can only make up to 3.5 million through incentives, 750K of that 2 million is in per game roster bonuses, and none of it is signing bonus, so none of his contract is guaranteed. Spencer has never played in a 4-3 in the NFL before, with the exception of those 38 snaps last season, but presumably, if he’s healthy, he can be an above average starter at the 4-3 defensive end position in rotation with George Selvie and a rookie.

The Cowboys are in desperate need of defensive line help, after losing both Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware this off-season, and Spencer can provide that in a big way if he’s right. He’ll be motivated to prove himself ahead of free agency next off-season so he can finally get that long-term deal. Between the contract year of his rookie deal, two franchise tags, and this one year deal, Spencer will be paying in 4 straight contract years. We’ve seen him do some of his best work in contract years.

Grade: A

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San Francisco 49ers re-sign WR Anquan Boldin

Anquan Boldin should be on the decline. Even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Anquan Boldin is now going into his age 34 season and is “only” 29th all-time in receiving yardage.

Instead, Boldin is coming off of his best season in terms of receiving yardage (1173) since 2006. And it wasn’t just the receiver-needy 49ers forcing him the ball every play. Boldin caught 69.1% of his targets, averaged 2.55 yards per route run (5th in the NFL), dropped just 6 passes, broke 13 tackles, averaged 5.2 yards after catch per catch, and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked wide receiver, including 3rd ranked in terms of pure pass catching grade. Colin Kaepernick had a 118.6 QB rating when throwing to him, which was 6th in the NFL.

It’s uncommon for a receiver to have that kind of season at age 33, but you have to remember what kind of receiver Anquan Boldin is. He’s never been a great athlete, relying on superb hands and body control, as well as physicality and ability to shake tackles after the catch. He isn’t someone who gets a lot of separation, but he’s almost always open even when he’s not. That type of receiver can survive into his mid-30s in ways that receivers more dependent on athleticism in the prime of their careers can’t. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him continue to produce in 2014 and 2015.

This was a very good move for the receiver-needy 49ers to lock up Anquan Boldin on this short-term deal. Boldin will make 12 million over 2 years maximum and the 49ers could get out of it after 1-year and 6 million dollars guaranteed if they chose to do so. Most likely, they’ll keep him on into 2015 because he’ll continue to prove to be an asset in the passing game in 2014 opposite Michael Crabtree. This deal is very similar to the one the Broncos gave Wes Welker in a similar stage in his career last off-season and I think it makes a lot of sense.

Grade: A

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Denver Broncos sign WR Emmanuel Sanders

The Broncos needed a cheap replacement for Eric Decker and Emmanuel Sanders will see a boost in production by moving to the Broncos’ passing offense, but he’s really “just a guy” at the wide receiver position so 5 million annually is a little much for him (6 million over 1 season is guaranteed). They could have found a cheaper #3 receiver. In 2 years as a key contributor for the Steelers in 2012 and 2013, including a starting role in 2013, Sanders graded out very middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus, grading out 57th and 60th respectively among wide receivers, while averaging 1.48 and 1.34 yards per route run. He’s an upgrade over Andre Caldwell as the 3rd receiver in Denver after Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, but this is an overpay.

Grade: C

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Detroit Lions sign WR Golden Tate

Golden Tate has never had a 1000 yard season, but there’s an argument to be made that he’s a better wide receiver than Eric Decker. His numbers have been kept down by a run heavy offense, but he’s averaged 1.80 and 2.01 yards per route run in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Compare that to 1.80 and 2.03 for Eric Decker and they’re much more comparable than you think. Golden Tate also had a better 2011 season, when he was a 2nd year receiver with problems at the quarterback position, than Decker did in 2011, when he also was a 2nd year receiver with problems at the quarterback position. Golden Tate averaged 1.33 yards per route run, as opposed to 1.28 yards per route run for Decker.

Now take into account that Eric Decker has 29 drops compared to 216 catches (1 drop every 7.45 catches), while Golden Tate has 5 drops compared to 144 catches (1 drop every 28.8 catches) and that, as good as Russell Wilson is, Golden Tate was playing with the inferior passing quarterback between the two. Eric Decker got 36.25 million over 5 years (with 15 million over 2 years guaranteed), while Golden Tate got 31 million over 5 years (with 13.25 million over 2 years guaranteed), which is more reasonable.

Tate moves from one of the run heaviest offenses in the NFL to one of the pass heaviest in Detroit and Matt Stafford isn’t really a downgrade from Russell Wilson as a pure passing quarterback. He’ll have an opportunity to run 600 pass routes opposite Calvin Johnson, see single coverage with regularity, and get his first 1000 yard season. The pass heavy Lions were incredibly thin at wide receiver after Calvin Johnson and were able to upgrade their passing attack tremendously with this move. It’s a reasonable value and a good use of the Lions’ limited cap space.

Grade: A-

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New York Jets sign WR Eric Decker

Eric Decker is going to get a massive downgrade at the quarterback position going from Peyton Manning to Michael Vick/Geno Smith. The last time he played with a quarterback other than Peyton Manning, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 82nd ranked wide receiver out of 115 eligible and averaged just 1.28 yards per route run, 65th out of 95 eligible. That was in 2011 with the combination of Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton, which is comparable to what Decker will be dealing with in New York.

That being said, it’s unfair to suggest that he’ll just go back to his 2011 level of production, when he caught 44 passes for 612 yards and 8 touchdowns. While much of his increased production since then is due to the arrival of Peyton Manning, he’s still an improved player over when he was in his 2nd year in the league in 2011, after being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. He’s averaged 1.80 and 2.03 yards per route run over the past 2 seasons, grading out 36th and 11th in those two seasons respectively among wide receivers, peaking in his contract year.

He’s not a true coverage changing #1 receiver, he’s not overly explosive, and he drops too many passes (29 drops compared to 216 catches over the past 3 seasons). However, he is going to be easily the Jets’ best wide receiver this season, he’s the difference maker the Jets needed downfield, and he’s incredibly reliable around the goal line (32 touchdowns in the last 3 seasons, including 8 even in 2011).

After averaging 86 catches for 1176 yards and 11 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons, Decker will probably have between 60-70 catches for 800-900 yards and 6-8 touchdowns next season, which is a significant upgrade over anything the Jets had from the wide receiver position last year. He’ll get 36.25 million over 5 years, including 15 million over 2 seasons guaranteed. His 7.25 million dollar average annual salary is 17th in the NFL, which is a slight overpay. However, it’s not a bad move for the wide receiver needy Jets.

Grade: B-

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New York Giants sign DE Robert Ayers

Robert Ayers was a bust as the 18th overall pick in 2009 because he never developed beyond being a solid rotational player, but he’s still a solid rotational player and a good pickup here for a Giants team that had big needs on the defensive line following some off-season losses. He had his best season in his contract year in 2013, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 4-3 defensive end, excelling against the run, where he ranked 9th at his position. He only played 514 snaps, but it was still an impressive season from him.

At 6-3 275, he’s a better run stuffer than pass rusher, but he also has the ability to move inside and play some defensive tackle in sub packages as sort of a Justin Tuck-lite for the Giants. He also is younger and comes much cheaper. He’ll probably play about 400-600 snaps and compete for snaps with Jason Pierre-Paul, Mathias Kiwanuka, Damontre Moore, and potentially a rookie. At 3.75 million over 2 years, with just 1.75 million over 1 year guaranteed, it’s a solid addition for the Giants.

Grade: A-

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