Best Re-Signings of NFL Free Agency So Far
While the big-money player acquisitions dominate the headlines of NFL free agency, teams that re-sign their own free agents often represent the best moves made early in the new league year.
I promise Ted Thompson isn't ghostwriting this piece. However, many of the best rosters in the NFL are still built on the draft-develop-and-retain strategy. It's a simple idea: Draft prospects you like, coach them up in your system, and then keep them around with second or third contracts.
Signing big free agents from other teams can work, but there's always considerably more risk in investing huge money in a player who hasn't spent years within your organization.
In the following slides, we will highlight the best re-signings of the NFL's early free-agency period. These moves return a key player to a comfortable situation with a familiar scheme while also offering the best balance of risk versus reward for team and player.
Note: Franchise tags will not be considered. Also, only re-signings made after the start of the new league year will be mentioned.
Ramon Foster, G, Pittsburgh Steelers: The always-reliable Ramon Foster will return to Pittsburgh, where his presence at left guard will help whomever the Steelers plug in at left tackle.
Mark Barron, LB, Los Angeles Rams: Mark Barron was a revelation for the Rams last season, but is he another NFL fad or the face of the league's future linebacker?
C.J. Anderson, RB, Denver Broncos: The Broncos couldn't afford to lose C.J. Anderson to Miami. He should now be the focal point of the Denver offense moving forward.
Ian Williams, NT, San Francisco 49ers: Finally healthy for 16 games, Ian Williams broke out in 2015 as one of the league's better run-stuffing nose tackles. He's only 26.
Tahir Whitehead, LB, Detroit Lions: Still only 25, Tahir Whitehead has experience playing at middle and outside linebacker for the Lions. He could end up being Detroit's long-term replacement for Stephen Tulloch inside.
Richie Incognito, G, Buffalo Bills: The Bills hit the jackpot after taking a chance on Richie Incognito last offseason. A Pro Bowler in 2015, he returns to man left guard for one of the NFL's better offensive lines.
Bilal Powell, RB, New York Jets: Bilal Powell's receiving ability is a big plus for Chan Gailey's offense, and he's steadily improved as a runner. But is his skill set a little redundant with Matt Forte now in New York?
Joseph Barksdale, OT, San Diego Chargers: The Chargers didn't have many bright spots on the offensive line last season, but Joseph Barksdale was one of them. He'll protect the right side for Philip Rivers.
Junior Galette, OLB, Washington Redskins: Junior Galette is coming off an Achilles injury that cost him the entire 2015 season. But if he's healthy, Galette can be a menacing pass-rusher.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
A young, productive pass-rusher, Jason Pierre-Paul was always going to make sense for a lot of teams outside New York. However, his return to the Giants provides the 27-year-old defensive end a chance to prove his mangled hand isn't an issue and restore his value for another run at the open market next spring.
For the Giants, Pierre-Paul's one-year deal represents the perfect balancing act between risk and reward.
While he was disruptive rushing the passer for the final eight games last season, Pierre-Paul is still mostly an uncertain asset moving forward. He struggled at times finishing plays with one hand, ending 2015 with only one sack. Sacks aren't everything, but it would have been difficult for the Giants to give a lucrative, multiyear deal to a pass-rusher who could have long-term limitations with his grip.
As a bonus, Pierre-Paul will now play opposite Olivier Vernon in New York. JPP could put up huge numbers in 2016, especially as his hand heals and he adjusts as a pass-rusher to his unique situation.
Jermaine Kearse, WR, Seattle Seahawks
Jermaine Kearse didn't have a big market, likely because he doesn't have physically dominant traits or huge numbers over his first four years in Seattle. But instead of forcing a fit elsewhere, Kearse returned to the Seahawks on a three-year deal worth $13.5 million, according to Tom Pelissero of USA Today.
The 26-year-old caught 49 passes for 685 yards and five touchdowns in 2015, all career highs. He is an ascending player, but his value is probably highest in Seattle, where he works well alongside Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett for quarterback Russell Wilson.
And don't forget about his playoff heroics. Over the last three postseasons, Kearse has almost 500 yards receiving with six touchdowns. He caught a touchdown during Seattle's Super Bowl win over Denver and the game-winning score against the Green Bay Packers to send the Seahawks to another Super Bowl one year later.
At over $4 million per year, Kearse might have been overpaid by a franchise in need of a receiver. In Seattle, the deal is just right to keep all of Wilson's favorite targets together.
Tamba Hali/Derrick Johnson, LBs, Kansas City Chiefs
There's risk in handing out big money to aging pass-rushers and middle linebackers. But the risk is significantly diminished when those veterans are returning to the same defense they've helped build over the last decade.
Tamba Hali will turn 33 during the 2016 season, but he can still disrupt the quarterback opposite Justin Houston (12.5 sacks over the last two seasons). Derrick Johnson, 33, was once again a difference-maker in 2015 (116 tackles, four sacks) after missing all but one game in 2014.
The pair has played 21 combined seasons in Kansas City. Both were still big pieces of the Chiefs' No. 3-ranked scoring defense last season. Losing them would have left significant holes, but bringing them back ensures continuity for a playoff team from a season ago.
William Hayes, DE, Los Angeles Rams
William Hayes could have parlayed his success as a mostly part-time player for the Rams into a big paycheck and a featured role on the open market. Instead, he's returning to Los Angeles to be a starter opposite Robert Quinn.
Since arriving from Tennessee in 2012, Hayes has provided the Rams with 21.5 sacks while often playing as the team's No. 3 defensive end. He emerged as a legitimate starter last year after Chris Long struggled with injuries and inconsistency. With Long no longer on the roster, Hayes will be slotted in as the starting left end across from Quinn—one of the NFL's better pass-rushers.
Pro Football Focus gave the move an "A" grade, just one of three free-agency deals that has received an "A" so far.
"Whenever called upon, Hayes delivered the goods in St Louis, and he has earned this deal and the starting spot that comes with it," PFF wrote. "It has been four strong seasons in a row for the one-time Titan who can contribute on every down."
George Iloka/Adam Jones, DBs, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals entered free agency with major parts of their secondary hitting the open market.
Cornerback Leon Hall and safety Reggie Nelson remain free agents, but Cincinnati has already brought back George Iloka and Adam Jones on new deals.
Iloka, 25, is a rangy safety with size, playmaking ability and the potential for more growth. Jones ended last season by helping the Bengals throw away a playoff win, but 2015 was still one of his best in the NFL.
Cincinnati could still lose Nelson or Hall or potentially both. But keeping at least two of the four should help soften the blow, especially with Iloka entering his prime and Jones coming off a strong season.
Jaye Howard, DE, Kansas City Chiefs
There's tremendous value in a versatile interior defender who can rush the passer. Jaye Howard fits the bill, and he'll now return to Kansas City to continue his ascent as one of the NFL's best young players at the position.
Over 16 games in 2015, Howard (27) produced 5.5 sacks and 57 combined tackles. He likely had an extensive market, but there's underrated comfort for a player in returning to a deep, talented defense that will now enter 2016 mostly intact.
The Chiefs could be dominant on that side of the ball again next season, especially with Howard, Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali and Eric Berry back in the fold. If Howard continues to handle his business at a variety of positions up front, he'll be in line for another big extension in two years.
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It's easy to understand some of the pushback against paying top dollar for Doug Martin, who—over four NFL seasons—has produced two great seasons and two not-so-great ones.
However, it's also easy to understand why the Buccaneers were adamant about bringing him back.
The Tampa Bay offense in 2015 ran through Martin, who rushed for 1,402 yards while averaging 4.9 yards per carry and scoring seven total touchdowns. He produced 68 first-down runs, with 14 carries of 20-plus yards and another four over 40.
Running backs are among the easiest of positions to plug and play into various systems, so it's possible Martin could have landed in Dallas, San Francisco or Oakland and made a big impact. However, Martin staying in Tampa Bay still feels like a best-case scenario for both team and player. Expect head coach Dirk Koetter and quarterback Jameis Winston to lean on their workhorse back again in 2016.
Charles Johnson, DE, Carolina Panthers
According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, Charles Johnson signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Panthers. He had other offers but decided to stay in Carolina with the NFC champions.
Despite posting only one sack in nine regular-season games in 2015, Johnson came alive during the Panthers' run to the Super Bowl—registering three sacks and a pair of forced fumbles over three games.
He'll now return to Carolina for 2016, likely in tandem with Super Bowl standout Kony Ealy at defensive end. The two could terrorize opposing offenses, especially if the duo can build on its postseason success.
Keep in mind that Johnson tallied at least 8.5 sacks in five straight seasons from 2010 to 2014. He's still only 29. The Panthers did well to keep him in town at a discounted rate.
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