Detroit Lions re-sign C Dominic Raiola

Dominic Raiola is aging, going into his age 36 season, and he looked done as recently as 2010-2011, when he graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in both seasons, including 5th worst among centers in 2010. However, he’s put together back-to-back strong seasons on an overall strong Detroit offensive line over the past two seasons, grading out 13th and 2nd among centers in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

At his age, he doesn’t have much time left, but he could easily have another strong season left in the tank, so credit the Lions for keeping him at a very reasonable rate (1.5 million over 1 season) and ensuring that center not become a pressing need heading into the draft. They can now focus on other positions early and look for a developmental successor for Raiola in the mid to late rounds. This was a smart move for the Lions.

Grade: A

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Washington Redskins sign S Ryan Clark

The Redskins desperately needed safety help and secondary help in general. Brandon Meriweather was their best safety last year, but he’s a below average starter, while 2013 4th and 6th round picks Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo didn’t show anything as rookies last season. Thomas missed the entire season with injury, while Rambo graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 79th ranked safety out of 86 eligible on just 340 snaps.

Ryan Clark was still a solid starter last season, grading out middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus, but he was a far cry from his 2008-2012 form, a stretch in which he finished in the top-25 among safety on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons and maxed out at 9th in 2012. Considering his age, as he’s going into his age 35 season, that’s very understandable and it’s probably not going to get any better. However, on a deal worth nearly the veteran’s minimum (about 1.02 million over 1 year) with just a 65K signing bonus guaranteed, this is a cheap pickup that could help this football team if Clark proves he has another decent year in the tank.

Grade: A

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New Orleans Saints sign CB Champ Bailey

The common narrative is that Champ Bailey is done, after he struggled through just 333 snaps (193 regular season, 140 post-season) last season thanks to injury and with him going into his age 36 season. However, he had a great 2012 season, at least in the regular season, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback and he has such an impressive history that it wouldn’t shock me if he had one more season in the tank provided he can stay healthy. He showed enough in the post-season last year to suggest that’s a decent possibility.

The Saints are risking very little with this deal. There’s only a 500K signing bonus and that’s all that’s guaranteed. He can earn another million dollars if he makes the final 53 man roster and another 250K if he plays at least 6 games this season. He can make up to 6.75 million over 2 seasons through incentives, but the total money on this deal is just 3.75 million over 2 seasons. They needed another cornerback after cutting Jabari Greer. Ideally, Champ Bailey would be one of the Saints’ top 3 cornerbacks this season with Keenan Lewis and Corey White, though they’ll probably add another cornerback through the draft, probably in the first couple of rounds. It’s a low risk deal that could pay off.

Grade: A-

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New York Jets sign RB Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson hasn’t been the same player since 2009, his 2000 yard season, though few people are able to repeat that kind of season. He was still an above average starting running back and an incredibly durable one at that, not missing a game since his rookie year in 2008 and totaling over 250 carries in all 6 of his professional seasons. However, last year he significantly declined in efficiency, averaging just 3.9 yards per carry, including just 1.8 yards per carry after contact and ranked 3rd worst in the NFL in elusive rating. He was Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked running back out of 55 eligible. That’s why the Titans cut him, instead of paying him a large salary.

He still was the highest paid running back on the open market this off-season, getting 4 million dollars yearly in this deal, while the 2nd highest paid running back got 3.5 million dollars yearly. This deal is worth a total of 8 million dollars (with an extra million dollars available through incentive) with 4 million over 1 year guaranteed (3 million dollars signing bonus and 1 million dollars base salary). I don’t think he’s quite worth that much money.

He should become more efficient this season as he’ll see a smaller workload, splitting carries with power back Chris Ivory (probably in the neighborhood of 180-220 carries). He could also be healthier after dealing with significant knee problems all last season. However, he’s also going into his age 29 season with 2014 career touches so he’s not getting any better any time soon. Injury problems could become commonplace for him and there’s already some concern about a potentially arthritic knee. He’s on the decline and this is an overpay.

Grade: C+

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Chicago Bears sign C Brian De La Puente

This is one of the biggest bargains of free agency. Brian De La Puente has been a starter in New Orleans for 3 years since Jonathan Goodwin left following the 2010 season. In those 3 seasons, De La Puente has been an above average starting center, grading out 12th, 2nd, and 16th among centers on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. He’s also only going into his age 29 season. Despite that, the Bears are getting him for a dollar over the league minimum (which gives them to option to give him an extension at any time one can be agreed to). I have a hard time believing the Saints didn’t want to bring him back at this price.

The Bears don’t necessarily need a center because Roberto Garza is coming off of a solid season, but Garza has been inconsistent in the past, is going into his age 35 season, and has a salary that is fairly inexpensive. De La Puente also has an inexpensive salary so the Bears essentially have two starting centers for the price of one with the ability to use De La Puente to compete with Garza or to use Garza, a former guard, as an interior line reserve and 6th offensive lineman. De La Puente also reunites with talented and well respected Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, who he worked with in New Orleans when he was the offensive line coach from 2009-2012. It’s a great move.

Grade: A

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Denver Broncos sign C Will Montgomery

This is another steal for the Broncos. I don’t know why Will Montgomery was cut by the Redskins, owed just 1.925 million dollars for the 2014 season. Since moving to be the Redskins’ starting center in 2011, Montgomery has started all 48 games and has graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th, 5th, and 15th ranked center in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. He’s an above average starting center, even going into his age 31 season. I guess new Redskins’ head coach Jay Gruden was not a fan, but it’ll end up being his loss.

The Redskins’ loss is the Broncos’ gain as they add a much needed starter on the offensive line. Montgomery can slot in at center, his best position, and move Manny Ramirez, who broke out as the Broncos’ starting center last season, to guard. Montgomery can also move to guard himself. Either way, he helps replace the departed Zane Beadles at a much cheaper price. Beadles got 30 million over 5 years from the Jaguars. Montgomery’s deal is worth 1.575 million over 1 season. They got a bargain so late in free agency.

Grade: A

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Cleveland Browns re-sign C Alex Mack

This deal came about in a roundabout fashion. The Browns started the situation off by using the transition tag on Mack, which would have paid him roughly 10 million dollars for the 2014 season if he had signed it. That 10 million dollar sum was the average of the top-10 offensive linemen in the league. You almost never see an interior offensive lineman, especially a center, get any tag of any sort, transition, franchise etc. The reason for that is that interior offensive lineman are less valuable in the NFL than offensive tackles, but offensive tackles’ salaries are still taken into account when determining the value of the tag. A 10 million dollar salary, even if only for one year, would have made Mack, by the far highest paid center in the NFL in terms of average annual salary (Ryan Kalil at 8.186 million is 2nd)

Mack never signed the transition tag, but even an unsigned transition tag gave the Browns the benefit of being able to match any contract Mack got offered on the open market. As a result, Mack draw little to no interest for most of the off-season because the Browns seemed very serious about getting Mack no matter the cost and most teams don’t have the cap space to dish out the kind of money it would have taken for the Browns, who are loaded with cap space and in desperate need of difference makers, not to match.

That was until the Jaguars came along and gave him a 5 year deal worth 42 million maximum. The Jaguars, like the Browns, have a ton of cap space and a huge need for talent, so it made sense, but ultimately the Browns still matched and now have Mack under contract long-term. The Jaguars structured the contract very interestingly and the Browns are now bound to the structure by virtue of matching it. Mack will get 26 million guaranteed over the first 3 years of the deal, unless he opts out before the 3rd year. If he does opt out, it will just be a 2-year, 18 million dollar deal and the Browns won’t have the option to tag him again if he does that. At that point, he can choose to go anywhere.

The deal is still incredibly rich for a center as the 8.4 million dollar average annual salary of the deal is still the highest in the NFL among centers and he’ll make 10 million in the first year of the deal. However, it’s not a bad deal. Mack is arguably the best center in the NFL. He’s graded out as a top-10 center in each of his 5 seasons in the NFL since being drafted in the first round by the Browns in 2009. Only Chris Myers has also been in the top-10 in centers in all 5 of those seasons. Mack is also at the peak of his career, going into his age 29 season. Also, the Browns have a ton of cap space to burn and a desperate need for talent. This deal won’t prevent the Browns from signing guys like Joe Haden, Jordan Cameron, and Josh Gordon long-term.

Grade: B-

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