San Francisco 49ers extend MLB NaVorro Bowman

When I grade big money signings, I like to do it by comparing it to other recent deals given to players at the same position. The middle linebacker position is an especially interesting one. In today’s NFL, the position is devalued a little as this is a pass friendly league and middle linebackers don’t have as much to do with the passing game as pass rushers and defensive backs. One of the best middle linebackers in the league is Derrick Johnson and he plays on the 1 win Chiefs.

The first big money deal given to a middle linebacker was a deal in May 2010 given to Patrick Willis, a 5 year, 50 million dollar deal with 29 million guaranteed. Also that offseason, DeMeco Ryans and Karlos Dansby were given sizable contracts. Ryans was given 48 million over 6 years with 21.75 million guaranteed, while Dansby got 43 million over 5 years with 22 million guaranteed. Dansby is still with the Dolphins and while he may be a little bit overpaid, the Dolphins probably don’t regret the move. Ryans, meanwhile, was traded 2 years into his deal, to the Eagles, in a cost saving move by the Texans.

The following offseason, the Jets and Panthers attempted to copy the 49ers, giving comparable deals to David Harris and Jon Beason respectively. Harris got 36 million over 4 years from the Jets and Beason got a 5 year, 50 million dollar deal with 25 million guaranteed. I criticized both of these contracts at the time because neither of those players were on the level of Patrick Willis. They were barely on the level of Ryans and Dansby. Also that offseason, Lawrence Timmons got 50 million over 6 years from the Steelers (undisclosed guaranteed), a deal I liked because, at the time, Timmons was coming off a season in which he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ top rated middle linebacker and he appeared to be a top tier linebacker.

Harris and Beason were both 2nd tier middle linebackers and now not even a year later, both of those contracts look like mistakes. Harris is currently ProFootballFocus’ 51st ranked middle linebacker out of 52, while Beason can’t even get on the field thanks to injuries. Both are candidates to be cut this offseason. Timmons, meanwhile, has been slowed by injuries of his own and while he won’t be cut or anything, he is slightly overpaid right now.

This past offseason, two more comparable deals were handed out, one by the Cardinals to Daryl Washington and one by the Rams to James Laurinaitis. Washington got 32 million over 4 years (guaranteed money was not disclosed) and Laurinaitis got 41.5 million over 5 years with 23.5 million guaranteed. I once again criticized these deals as neither player was on the level of Willis.

I felt all of these players should have been paid comparable to Derrick Johnson, who got a very reasonable 5 year, 34 million dollar extension with 15 million guaranteed in the middle of the 2010 season. I also cited that 3rd tier linebackers like Curtis Lofton, Stephen Tulloch, and David Hawthorne got 27.5 million, 25.5 million, and 19 million respectively in total money over 5 years this offseason.

Looking back on those deals 3 months later, I stand by what I said about the Laurinaitis deal. Laurinaitis is a talented player and a key part of St. Louis’ surprising young defense, but he he’s getting paid like an elite linebacker when really he’s just an above average player. Washington proved me wrong a little, breaking out into an elite level player this year, his 3rd in the NFL. He’s not Willis, but he’s definitely a Pro Bowler.

However, part of my criticism of that deal was that it was premature and that still stands. Washington had 2 years left on his deal and probably could have been signed to a comparable deal this offseason, even if he became a Pro-Bowl caliber player, given that Willis was only making 10 million per year, with 25 million total guaranteed.

All this being said, it is just possible that the Willis extension was so shrewd that it’s making deals that aren’t so bad look bad by comparison. When the 49ers locked up Willis, they were locking up one of the top-10 defensive players in the NFL (something none of the other linebackers could say) for just about 10 million per year, which comparatively was a bargain. This wasn’t a case of a team speculating that a player would emerge as someone worth this deal in a year (like the Washington deal). This was someone who knew what he was accepting a very reasonable amount of money from an organization who knew what he was.

If we accept that premise, I can’t criticize this deal. NaVorro Bowman is not as good as Patrick Willis, but he still deserves this 5 year, 42.5 million dollar deal with 25.5 million guaranteed (more than Willis). As a player, he’s right now on the level of guys like Daryl Washington, Derrick Johnson (who has proven to be well worth the deal the Chiefs gave him 2 years ago), and the injured Sean Lee, not Patrick Willis, but not 2nd tier guys like DeMeco Ryans, Karlos Dansby, Lawrence Timmons, and the emerging young Bobby Wagner and Brandon Spikes.

He does have two years left on his rookie deal (including this season), but this isn’t a speculative extension like Washington’s was. Bowman arrived last season and has backed it up with his play this season. This move wasn’t as shrewd as the Willis extension, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good move. As long as Willis doesn’t mind that his “little brother” got more guaranteed money than he did (I doubt it), this is a good move.

Grade: A

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers trade CB Aqib Talib to the New England Patriots

Trade for Patriots: I absolutely love this trade for the Patriots. They desperately need cornerback help. They have a few young cornerbacks, but none of them are playing well. Tom Brady is 35 so their Super Bowl window is closing. They need a short term solution so they don’t have to rely on developmental cornerbacks like Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, and the recently released Sterling Moore. This might be the missing piece in their Super Bowl puzzle. They were contenders before this trade, but now, they’re even deadlier as they’ve upgraded one of their only weaknesses. Any time you can potentially acquire the missing piece to a Super Bowl team, it’s a good trade, especially for a mid round pick.

The Buccaneers gave up on Talib because he’s in a contract year and because of his off the field issues, but he’s still a proven cornerback. He’s still got 2 more games left on his suspension for adderall, but the Patriots will have him around for the stretch run which is what matters. He will start opposite Devin McCourty, who will probably be moving back to cornerback when Patrick Chung returns and help a pass defense that ranks 29th against the pass right now. Between McCourty (a better cornerback than safety), Talib, Patrick Chung (when he returns), and talented rookie Alfonzo Dennard, this secondary is going to look a lot better in a couple of weeks than it does now and shore up their only real weakness.

In 2010, he allowed 35 of 59 (59.3%) for 502 yards (8.5 YPA), 5 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 2 penalties. In 2011, he allowed 28 of 51 (54.9%) for 479 yards (9.4 YPA), 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 6 penalties. This year, he’s allowed 24 of 36 (66.7%), 399 yards (11.1 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 1 interception, while deflecting 6 passes and committing 2 penalties. Getting Talib and a 7th round pick for a 4th round pick is yet another one of Bill Belichick’s smart bye low deals. The difference between a 4th round pick and a 7th round pick is barely anything, especially for a team like the Patriots who frequently find contributors in the 6th and 7th round.

Grade: A

Trade for Buccaneers: Greg Schiano has made it a point to makeover the team and the locker room culture since being hired before this season. Getting rid of Talib is yet another part of that and so far, it’s worked. This was a talented team that won 10 games in 2010 and they started 4-2 last year before Raheem Morris lost control of the team. Schiano seems to have gotten it back and the Buccaneers are playing well, sitting at 3-4 with a +32 points differential. They probably won’t make the playoffs this season, which is why they could get rid of Talib, who probably would not be back after the season, so this move makes sense. It also gives them a chance to see if young cornerbacks Leonard Johnson and EJ Biggers can be long term starters. I like this move for both sides, but I think the Patriots got the better end.

Grade: A

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Jacksonville Jaguars trade WR Mike Thomas to Detroit Lions

Trade for Jaguars: Mike Thomas caught 63 passes for 820 yards and 4 touchdowns as a 23 year old receiver in 2010, but it’s all gone downhill since there and he has just 13 catches for 80 yards this year, buried behind Justin Blackmon, Cecil Shorts, and Laurent Robinson on the depth chart. Given that he’s owed 8.61 million over the next 3 seasons, I’m surprised there were able to get anything for him, though only 1 million of his 2013 salary is guaranteed. I don’t know how they got the mid round pick they reportedly received.

Trade: A

Trade for Lions: I don’t get this. I get that they’re taking a chance on Thomas bouncing back with a real quarterback, but I don’t understand giving up a mid round pick and taking on his salary. Besides, it’s not like they really need another wide receiver with Calvin Johnson, Titus Young, and Ryan Broyles.

Grade: D

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Dallas Cowboys extend S Barry Church

If you’re wondering who Barry Church is, don’t feel bad. He’s a 2010 undrafted free agent who has made 4 career starts and is currently on IR after tearing his Achilles week 3. Apparently, the Cowboys felt it was urgent to give him a 4 year extension worth 12.4 million with 3.9 million guaranteed before actually making sure a player who less than 3 years ago went undrafted could actually play. I don’t get this move at all. I get that they see him as a starter in 2013 once he returns from injury, but at least make the guy prove it first. He’s not an unrestricted free agent until 2014.

They made a similar move signing one time future starter Orlando Scandrick to a 5 year, 27 million dollar extension worth 10 million guaranteed before he proved anything in 2011. He struggled to nail down a starting job and the Cowboys gave up on him before the 2012 season, signing Brandon Carr to a 50 million dollar contract and trading their 1st and 2nd rounders to move up to grab Morris Claiborne so Carr and Claiborne could start for years to come, leaving Scandrick as a depth corner in sub packages. They may be making a similar mistake here, albeit with less money.

Grade: D

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San Diego Chargers extend WR Malcom Floyd

Malcom Floyd was in a contract year this year and only making 2 million dollars. When I heard the Chargers had signed him to a 3 year extension, I was worried they overpaid. Yes, he’s the #1 receiver by default right now, but he’s never really proven he can be a consistent top option, even with an elite quarterback throwing him the ball. He’s also missed 9 games in the last 2 years and is already 31 years old.

However, then I found out this deal pays him just 11 million over 3 years with 8 million guaranteed. How the hell did they do that? This is their #1 receiver. He’s an underrated player who has produced when healthy, catching 125 passes for 2196 yards and 12 touchdowns in his last 34 games, just over two seasons.

He’s had some issues with his consistency and with injuries and he’s not getting any younger and I’ve always felt he was a marginal receiver being made more productive by a great receiver and he’s not a big YAC guy, but this is a bargain for him. This 3 year deal pays him less than the 13.5 million dollar one they gave to Eddie Royal and is less than half the size of the 4 year, 25.9 million dollar deal they gave Robert Meachem. Floyd has almost double the yardage those two have combined (121). Those two are overpaid, but this is still a bargain and given that the other two aren’t very good, they had to lock him up going in a contract year.

Grade: A

Dallas Cowboys extend 3-4 DE Sean Lissemore

Lissemore was a 7th round pick in 2010 and had 2 years (including this one) left on his rookie deal. The Cowboys have tacked on an extra 3 years, 6 million onto his deal, with 3.1 million guaranteed. This is the 2nd time in as many seasons that the Cowboys have attempted to get ahead of the curve and give a player an extension before they broke out because the team felt they were headed for a breakout year. Last year, they gave Orlando Scandrick a 5 year, 27 million dollar extension with 10 million guaranteed.

This deal is far less head scratching. For one, it’s far less money so they’re taking a far smaller risk if Lissemore doesn’t pan out like they think he will. Two, Lissemore is coming off a strong season as a situational player, whereas Scandrick struggled some on the slot in 2010, before getting his extension. For some reason, the Cowboys thought that made him a good bet to be a long term starter at cornerback.

However, just one year later they were proven wrong as Scandrick failed to take the next step and the team had to use a lot of resources to add two new cornerbacks in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne this offseason. Now Scandrick is stuck behind those two for the foreseeable future and the Cowboys are stuck being an average slot cornerback a lot of money yearly. In the opener, he played just 27 of 56 snaps, which is about what you can expect from him long term.

Lissemore, however, played very well as a situational player last year. In 2011, he had a 13.8 rating on just 283 snaps on ProFootballFocus. He wasn’t much of a pass rusher, but he had 18 solo tackles, 8 assists and 16 stops on just 119 run defense snaps, while missing only 2 tackles. He was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd rated 3-4 defensive end against the run, behind Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey. He played all over the line, both end spots and nose tackle, and will have a bigger role this season. We’ll see if the added playing time will help or hurt him, but I named him as my potential breakout player for the Cowboys early in the season.

Lissemore played 27 of 56 snaps in the opener and only one defensive lineman played more. He’ll probably see slightly fewer snaps when Jay Ratliff returns, but if he continues to play well, as he did in the opener, he could lock down that 3rd starting defensive lineman job next to Jason Hatcher and Jay Ratliff by season’s end, something they desperately need someone to do, and if he does that, he’ll end up being well worth this contract long term. If he doesn’t, it’s not a huge risk and Lissemore could still end up being a valuable rotational player.

Grade: A

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Arizona Cardinals extend MLB Daryl Washington

Washington was Arizona’s leader in tackles last season and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker, grading out above average against the run, in coverage, and as a blitzer, adding 6 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 19 quarterback pressures. Heading into his 3rd year in the league, he has a good chance to make his first Pro Bowl in 2012. Washington, a 2010 2nd round pick, still had 2 years left on his rookie contract, but, with no players of note heading into contract years, the Cardinals decided to lock him up now.

I’m not normally a fan of when teams give players a new deal after just 2 years in the league and they’re also overpaying him a little bit. He’s getting an extra 32 million of new money over an extra 4 years, though no word yet on the guaranteed money amount. Similar caliber players like Curtis Lofton, Stephen Tulloch, and David Hawthorne got 27.5 million, 25.5 million, and 19 million respectively over 5 years. In a passing league, non-rush linebackers like Washington just aren’t worth that much, with rare exceptions.

Look at the deal Patrick Willis got 2 years ago. Willis got 7 years, 53.51 million with 29 million guaranteed. Washington is getting more yearly than him and he’s only played 2 years and never been a Pro-Bowler. The Cardinals are taking a big risk here projecting that Washington will continue to improve and jump from above average to elite. With 2 years left on his rookie deal, there was no real reason to make this move now. Make him prove it first.

Grade: C

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St. Louis Rams extend MLB James Laurinaitis

James Laurinaitis is a very talented linebacker. A 2009 2nd round pick, he has graded out positively overall over the past 3 years as a starter and ranked 14th overall among middle linebackers in 2010 on ProFootballFocus. He’s managed 100+ tackles in each of his first 3 years in the league, good for a combined 376 tackles, a whopping 310 of which were solo. Heading into the final year of his rookie deal, the Rams were known to be working on a long term extension with Laurinaitis and agreed to terms with him today on a 5 year, 41.5 million dollar extension with 23.5 million of that guaranteed.

The issue is that middle linebackers just didn’t get paid that much money this offseason or even historically really. Curtis Lofton, Stephen Tulloch, and David Hawthorne got 27.5 million, 25.5 million, and 19 million respectively over 5 years. Laurinaitis gets 41.5 million, with a whopping 23.5 million guaranteed. Is Laurinaitis really that much better of a player than those guys? In a passing league, that is just too much money for a non-rush linebacker, with rare exceptions. Look at the deal Patrick Willis got 2 years ago. Willis got 7 years, 53.51 million with 29 million guaranteed. That’s less money per year than Laurinaitis. Willis did get more years and more guaranteed money, but he’s a significantly superior player.

The only recent deal that compares to this one is the 5 year, 42.5 million dollar deal to the Browns gave to D’Qwell Jackson this offseason and that deal looked pretty bad at the time too and even worse when guys like Lofton, Tulloch, and Hawthorne got significantly less. Jackson also got just 10.4 million guaranteed. Laurinaitis’ deal is worse because of the larger amount of guaranteed money and because the Rams had 3 deals to similar caliber players to use as a reference point. The Rams simply overrated Laurinaitis, paying him on the level of Patrick Willis, whereas the Browns’ mistake was just signing Jackson too quickly and not letting the market set the price.

The Rams were smart to lock up Laurinaitis now because the franchise tag value is inflated for linebackers because of rush linebackers, so the Rams would have probably had to guarantee Laurinaitis upwards of 9 million in 2013 if they tagged him (the tag was worth 8.8 million for linebackers this season). That wouldn’t have been a realistic option. However, giving Laurinaitis over 8 million per season over 5 years, with more than half of that being guaranteed, is not much of a better option. In fact, it may even be worse because it’s for a longer period of time.

Grade: C

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St. Louis Rams trade OT Jason Smith to the New York Jets for OT Wayne Hunter

The Jets and Rams are essentially swapping terrible right tackles in this deal. Smith is the better of the two, but the former 2nd overall pick has only played in 28 games in 3 seasons and only played in more than 7 games once, starting 15 games in 2010. In 2010, he was awful, grading out as below average as a run blocker and pass protector, allowing 5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 32 quarterback pressures, while committing 9 penalties. Out of 76 offensive tackles, Smith graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 56th ranked offensive tackle that season.

He wasn’t much better in limited action in 2009 or 2011. After missing 10 games with concussions last season, Smith did not impress this offseason, evidently, and was benched for Barry Richardson, who was horrific in his own right last season as the starting right tackle for the cross state Chiefs as Richardson was ProFootballFocus’ 2nd worst rated offensive tackle. It’s pretty pathetic that Smith couldn’t even beat him out.

Hunter, meanwhile, has been even worse over the past 2 years. In 2010, Hunter played the equivalent of 7 whole games, including playoffs, and allowed 4 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 15 quarterback pressures, while committing 7 penalties and struggling as a run blocker. Ironically, Hunter managed to grade out one spot lower than Smith on ProFootballFocus’ offensive tackle rankings, 57th, despite only playing less than half the snaps that Smith played.

Hunter did not get better in 2011. In fact, he pretty much continued his awful play over an entire season. ProFootballFocus’ 67th ranked offensive tackle out of 73, Hunter allowed 11 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, and 32 quarterback pressures, committed 11 penalties and struggled as a run blocker. After allowing 3 sacks in a preseason game against the Giants a week ago, Hunter was benched for veteran journeyman Austin Howard, who has only played in 2 games in his career, including one start where the 2010 undrafted free agent allowed 2 sacks and 2 quarterback hits.

Jason Smith is also younger, heading into only his age 26 season, while Hunter heads into his age 31 season, and has more upside as a former #2 overall pick if he can get his game together and stay healthy. However, Smith is owed 4 million fully guaranteed this season, while Howard is owed just 2.45 million fully guaranteed this season. For what it’s worth, neither tackle will see the money they are owed in 2013, as Hunter is owed a non-guaranteed 3.95 million and Smith is owed a whopping non-guaranteed 12 million (including an 11.25 million dollar roster bonus due in March of 2013).

However, I don’t know if the “upgrade” from Hunter to Smith is really worth an extra 1.55 million. If Smith can start to make good on some of his upside and prove to be a decent right tackle, it will be, but the Jets are taking a major risk. I’d rather pay Hunter 2.45 million than pay Smith 4 million. The Rams are also taking a risk, betting that Smith won’t ever emerge as a decent starting right tackle, because this deal pretty much locks them into having an awful right tackle this season, either Hunter or Richardson. However, it’s unlikely that Smith would have been much better than either of them and the Rams are saving 1.55 million this season, so I like this deal a little bit more for them.

Update: Apparently the two sides pulled some salary cap magic and restructuring Smith’s contract right before the trade so that 1.55 million of Smith’s deal would be paid to him as a signing bonus by the Rams before he went to the Jets. Essentially, these two teams are going to be paying these two players the same amount this season. Given that, this deal makes no sense for the Rams? Why trade someone who probably has no upside for someone who definitely has no upside? Smith is younger and better than Hunter. Although, admittedly the former is like comparing eating a pound of dog shit to eating 2 pounds of dog shit. Still, the Jets win this trade.

Grade for St. Louis: C

Grade for NY Jets: A

If you’re interested in doing a fantasy football league with me, here’s the link (no draft date set yet, currently standard, with the option to become PPR with group vote). http://msn.foxsports.com/fantasy/football/commissioner/Registration/Private.aspx?league=55086&password=FanSpot2

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Seattle Seahawks trade QB Tarvaris Jackson to Buffalo Bills

Trade for Seattle: There was just no room in Seattle for Jackson. Russell Wilson had an impressive offseason to win the starting quarterback job as a 3rd round pick rookie, while Matt Flynn basically won the backup quarterback job by virtue of his fully guaranteed 8 million dollar salary in 2012, 6 million of which had already been paid to him in the form of a signing bonus. Jackson was owed 4 million this season and even if he had agreed to a pay cut with the Seahawks, which he did with the Bills as part of this trade, it wouldn’t have made any sense to keep him. Credit them for getting something for him.

Grade: A

Trade for Buffalo: Ryan Fitzpatrick has definitely flashed at times in his career as a starter, but he’s certainly not a proven franchise quarterback yet and he is pretty injury prone. For that reason, it’s a necessity for the Bills to protect themselves with a solid veteran quarterback. However, Vince Young, who was signed this offseason to a 1 year deal to do that, has been awful this preseason, completing just 25 of 52 (48.1%) for 276 yards (5.3 YPA), 0 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. His competition for the job, Tyler Thigpen, was even worse completing 11 of 23 (47.8%) for 94 yards (4.1 YPA), 0 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. Both of them will likely be cut as part of final cuts now, or even sooner, as Jackson will be Fitzpatrick’s primary backup. For a late round pick and a reasonable salary after pay cut, this move makes a lot of sense.

Grade: A

If you’re interested in doing a fantasy football league with me, here’s the link (no draft date set yet, currently standard, with the option to become PPR with group vote). http://msn.foxsports.com/fantasy/football/commissioner/Registration/Private.aspx?league=55086&password=FanSpot2

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