Buffalo Bills sign TE Charles Clay

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-

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San Diego Chargers sign CB Patrick Robinson

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-

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Detroit Lions re-sign CB Rashean Mathis

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

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Dallas Cowboys sign DE Greg Hardy

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-

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Denver Broncos sign TE Owen Daniels

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-

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St. Louis Rams re-sign TE Lance Kendricks

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

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New Orleans Saints trade WR Kenny Stills to the Miami Dolphins for MLB Dannell Ellerbe

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

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San Diego Chargers sign WR Steve Johnson

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-

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New England Patriots sign DE Jabaal Sheard

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-

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Chicago Bears sign WR Eddie Royal

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 worth, 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

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