Detroit Lions trade DE George Johnson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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.

Grade for Tampa Bay: B-

Grade for Detroit: B

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Oakland Raiders sign WR Michael Crabtree

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.

Grade: B+

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Miami Dolphins extend C Mike Pouncey

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.

Grade: C-

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Denver Broncos sign DE Vance Walker

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.

Grade: A-

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Denver Broncos sign DE Antonio Smith

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.

Grade: A-

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Chicago Bears sign C Will Montgomery

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.

Grade: A

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Indianapolis Colts sign S Dwight Lowery

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.

Grade: A

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