NFL free agency is a flurry of big names and big money dominating the news cycle for most of the new league year's first two weeks.
But for every 25 overpriced deals handed out to damaged goods during free agency, there's always at least one—in this case defensive end Willie Young to the Chicago Bears—that jumps off the screen as a perfect fit and at a bargain price.
According to Tom Pelissero of USA Today, Young and the Bears agreed to a three-year deal worth just $9 million, with a $2 million signing bonus and only $3.95 million guaranteed. The contract averages just $3 million per year, and in no season does the deal produce a cap hit for the Bears over $3.1 million.
Overall, Young will be the 48th-highest-paid defensive end in terms of average salary, and the 54th-highest cap hit at the position in 2014.
A steal? In a world where Everson Griffen can land $42 million and $20 million guaranteed, you bet. In fact, Young is arguably the best bargain of free agency so far.
The Bears have become the biggest beneficiary.
Consider that Julius Peppers was scheduled to count over $18 million against Chicago's cap in 2014. Young, at roughly $2.7 million, and Lamarr Houston, who was signed on the first day of free agency, will eat up just $7.7 million next season. That's $11 million in savings for what looks like a big upgrade at defensive end.
|Upgrade: Houston/Young vs. Peppers/McClellin in 2013|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
According to Pro Football Focus, Houston finished last season as the No. 11 overall 4-3 defensive end and the fifth-best end against the run. He led the position in overall stops (54) and run stops (40), and he created 63 quarterback disruptions. Best yet, he doesn't turn 27 years old until June.
But the Bears also paid in full for Houston, who signed a five-year deal worth $35 million, with $15 million guaranteed and $21 million paid out during the first three years. His contract ranks as the eighth most lucrative deal signed by an unrestricted free agent, and the second-highest among defensive ends (Michael Johnson, Tampa Bay).
The Bears got a much better deal on Young.
An ascending edge player, Young finished last season as PFF's No. 16 overall defensive end. He received positive grades against both the pass and run, and only six penalties kept his grade from being in the same overall range as Houston's.
The surface stats for Young were probably a big reason he didn't receive significant interest. As a 15-game starter last season, he had just 47 tackles and three sacks. He has just six career sacks. But getting a feel for his game requires a deeper dive than just tackles and sacks.
The Bears signed a player who showed last season he can get after the quarterback.
Over 800 defensive snaps in 2013, Young tallied 60 quarterback disruptions—good for 16th among 4-3 defensive ends. His 48 hurries ranked third at the position, behind only Brian Robison and Robert Quinn.
Young also proved to be a versatile rusher. He tallied 39 pressures from the left side and 21 from the right, making him one of just four defensive ends (Greg Hardy, Griffen, Mathias Kiwanuka being the others) to record at least 20 disruptions from each side of the line. While he registered more pressures from the left side, he was actually more efficient from the right, with a pressure rate of one every five pass-rushing snaps while lining up against opposing left tackles.
He was also consistent, recording at least three quarterback disruptions in 11 of 15 starts last season.
Watch as Young records one of his three sacks last season:
He bursts inside on the snap, working off the right tackle's left shoulder. The stunt is designed to free him a lane, but Young overpowers the tackle and collapses the pocket right into Brandon Weeden's lap for a sack.
But for as badly as the Bears needed to bolster the pass rush—Chicago had just 21 sacks from the defensive line last season and 32 total—the defense also needed to get better by leaps and bounds against the run.
Opposing offenses ran for 161.4 yards and 5.3 yards per carry against Chicago last season, both ranking dead last in the NFL. The 5.3 yards allowed per rush was the worst by a defense since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. And no defense since the 1961 Minnesota Vikings has allowed yards at a higher rate (5.41).
Houston was a big step in the right direction. At 6'3" and over 300 pounds, the former Raiders defensive end produced the most run stops and the highest run-stop percentage at position last season. Also, 10 of his 69 tackles went for losses (not including sacks). He can hold the edge and two-gap from a wide position.
A quick-twitch end who weighs just 251 pounds, Young wouldn't appear to be a great answer against the run. But the numbers say otherwise.
Young finished last season ranked behind only Houston in run-stop percentage, with 25 stops over 252 run snaps. His 25 run stops tied Michael Johnson, who many believe is one of the top run-stopping defensive ends in the NFL. Only five 4-3 defensive ends had more than 25 last season.
And of Young's 47 total tackles, seven came behind the line of scrimmage.
In the video below, we see Young attack against the run and create a negative play:
Watch as he times up the snap and cuts inside the tight end, before embarrassing the pulling guard and taking down the running back at the line of scrimmage.
You'd figure a 28-year-old player at a premium position who is coming off his best professional season would generate buzz in free agency, and eventually land a sizable deal. As of Wednesday, 31 different free agents secured deals totaling at least $25 million. A $10 million bump in the salary cap for 2014 gave teams the buying power to do big deals.
Yet Young had to settle for a three-year deal worth just $3 million per season. His new deal is comparable to what Dexter McCluster received from the Tennessee Titans. In fact, Young's $9 million over three years is only about a half-million more than what kicker Steven Hauschka signed for with the Seattle Seahawks.
Among those who signed for more money per year than Young: LaMarr Woodley (two years, $10.4 million), Ziggy Hood (four, $16 million), Toby Gerhart (three, $10.5 million) and Ted Ginn (three, $9.75 million). Sensing the gravity of the bargain yet?
Maybe a visual will help. Here's how Young's deal will be structured over the next three years:
|Willie Young's Contract Structure, 2014-16|
|Year||Base||Total Bonus||Cap Hit||Dead Money|
The Bears look like big winners.
Houston came at a steep price, but just a few days into free agency, Chicago had signed two top-20 defensive ends—both of whom can rush the quarterback and stop the run.
And while the once-dominant Peppers was cut and then eventually landed in Green Bay, the Bears can feel confident a combination of Houston and Young will bring more on their monetary investment than Peppers and (insert left defensive end here) would have next season.
In two swift moves, Chicago found two new starters at defensive end to help jump start the rebuild of the defense. Houston was the headliner, but Young might end up being the real steal of free agency in 2014.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.
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