NFL Free Agency 2017: Highlighting Under-the-Radar Winners

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 20, 2017

NFL Free Agency 2017: Highlighting Under-the-Radar Winners

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    Winning free agency in March rarely has much to do with winning football games in September, October, November, December, January or early February.

    That said, several executives, coaches, teams and current and future players were victorious during the first two weeks of the new league year.

    Here are free agency's 10 winners who may have flown under your radar.

Sashi Brown

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    There's little doubt the Cleveland Browns have earned some offseason victories the last couple of weeks.

    They spent a bunch of money to upgrade their offensive line, they added a talented and experienced new No. 1 receiver in Kenny Britt and they picked up a 2018 second-round draft pick from the Houston Texans as compensation for absorbing bust quarterback Brock Osweiler's bloated salary with cap space they wouldn't have used anyway.

    What's more, their division rivals struggled (the Baltimore Ravens lost a key offensive lineman for the second straight offseason and saw their Pro Bowl fullback walk, while the Cincinnati Bengals lost two key offensive linemen) or remained idle (somebody wake up the Pittsburgh Steelers).

    But the real winner coming out of that trade with Houston is general manager Sashi Brown's front office. 

    See, the Browns don't have a lot of patience. This is a team that employed six general managers in a nine-year span between 2008 and 2016. Owner Jimmy Haslam fired three head coaches and three GMs in his first four years in charge of the franchise. 

    The current regime hasn't been coy about its love for draft picks, especially early selections and those in that hearty second round. The team now owns a ridiculous eight first- or second-round picks in the next two drafts, including three second-rounders in 2018 (their own, one from the Texans and another from the Philadelphia Eagles).

    This is where Brown and his cohorts have tied Haslam's hands. Regardless of what happens after they either use or trade their five top-65 picks in 2017, how can Haslam justify firing his GM (or president Paul DePodesta) before A) giving the 2017 picks a chance to flourish, B) giving Brown and Co. a chance to use those 2018 selections and C) giving those picks a chance to flourish?

    By loading up on yet another high-end future draft pick and adding just enough talent to indicate progress, Brown has bought himself at least an extra year on the job, regardless of what happens on the field.

Tennessee Titans

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    The Tennessee Titans may not have made the cannonball-sized splash some were expecting in free agency, but a young and talented team quietly made several smart moves defensively.

    That's important, because Tennessee is trying to become a contender in smart, prudent fashion—not by cutting exorbitant checks to overhyped free agents, but by filling holes and making slight upgrades on the open market while continuing to build through the draft. 

    The Titans have already invested a tremendous amount of draft currency in the offense, with recent high-end picks Marcus Mariota, Jack Conklin, Taylor Lewan and Derrick Henry all part of the core. That unit ranked tied for ninth in football in yards per play and above the league average in points and yards per game in 2016. It should only build on that in 2017. 

    It's the defense that needs to improve. It ranked 20th in yards allowed and tied for 23rd with just 18 takeaways last season, and I'm guessing casual football fans couldn't name a member of that 2016 Titans D. 

    The Titans have signed four outside free agents. All four are defensive players, all four are young, and all four came relatively cheaply.

    The headliners are 26-year-old defensive backs Logan Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien, who will team up with Kevin Byard, Da'Norris Searcy and Jason McCourty to give Tennessee one of the best young secondaries in the game. The former has been a solid starter in New England the last two years, while the latter broke out with the fifth-highest Pro Football Focus grade at the safety position in 2016. 

    Ryan was graded by PFF as the fourth-best corner on the market, while Cyprien graded out as the top safety. And yet Ryan is being paid a reasonable $30 million over three years, while three other safeties signed deals with higher total values than the one Tennessee gave Cyprien. 

    The Titans also brought in nose tackle Sylvester Williams, who was a disappointment in Denver but is a former first-round pick with the talent to flourish in the right setting. They also added depth linebacker Daren Bates and re-signed situational rusher Karl Klug. 

    They still have nearly $40 million in salary-cap space, much of which they'll be able to carry over to 2018. Oh, and they're still slated to pick fifth and 18th in next month's draft. 

    A good team got better without spending too much cash and without losing any draft currency. I'd say that's a W.

Pierre Garcon

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    Among the four wide receivers that hit free agency coming off 1,000-yard seasons, Pierre Garcon was the oldest. Despite that, he signed the biggest contract on the receiver market. 

    It was an aberrational deal for a receiver on the wrong side of 30: five years, $47.5 million, with $20 million guaranteed from the San Francisco 49ers. For perspective, the largest contract given to a receiver in his 30s last year was Anquan Boldin's one-year, $2.8 million deal with the Detroit Lions.

    Garcon's contract is the largest ever signed by a receiver above the age of 30, which is odd considering his 30-year-old teammate, DeSean Jackson, also hit free agency this month. Jackson is probably more talented and definitely more accomplished, but he "settled" for a three-year, $33.5 million deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jackson's average annual salary is slightly higher than Garcon's, and they're both guaranteed $20 million, but Garcon's contract is still more valuable overall. 

    Both deals buck a trend. Older players were largely ignored during the early stages of free agency in recent years, and this marked the first time since Peyton Manning signed a monster deal with the Denver Broncos in 2012 that a player in his 30s had signed a free-agent contract worth more than $9 million per season and more than $40 million overall. (Later on the same day Garcon signed his deal, 30-year-old defensive end Calais Campbell also inked a free-agent contract that met that criteria.)

    Terrelle Pryor is younger and coming off a 1,000-yard season, but he lingered on the market before signing a one-year, $6 million deal with Garcon's former team, the Washington Redskins. Alshon Jeffery is younger, but he settled for a one-year, $9.5 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. 

    Why did this happen? Garcon is coming off the best season of his career, but he might have also lucked out. That's because his former offensive coordinator in Washington, Kyle Shanahan, just took over in San Francisco, where the Niners entered the offseason with about $3.4 trillion to spend. Shanahan wanted his guy from D.C., and the 49ers weren't likely too concerned about overpaying. 

Running Back Prospects in the 2017 Draft

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    This appears to be a special year for running backs in the NFL draft, with LSU's Leonard Fournette and Florida State's Dalvin Cook seemingly locked in as first-round picks. Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, Tennessee's Alvin Kamara and Texas' D'Onta Foreman all have a chance to breach the first round as well. 

    That might explain why there was a league-wide repudiation of the free-agent running back class. 

    Eddie Lacy settled for a one-year, $4.25 million prove-it deal with the Seattle Seahawks. Rex Burkhead took a one-year, $3.15 million prove-it contract with the Patriots. In the first week of free agency, only one back—Danny Woodhead—signed for more than two years, and he's making only $2.9 million per year. Finally, late this week, Latavius Murray signed a three-year, $15 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings. 

    Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, James Starks, Rashad Jennings, DeAngelo Williams, Chris Johnson, LeGarrette Blount and Justin Forsett remain unsigned. 

    You don't really think of a group of NFL prospects as free agency winners. But this year's running back free agent-class lost, which means the draft class won.

Todd Wash

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    Last year, Todd Wash took full control of a Jacksonville Jaguars defense that surrendered a conference-high 28.0 points per game the previous season. With an influx of talent on D, Wash's unit decreased that number to 25.0 in 2016. 

    But general manager David Caldwell wasn't satisfied. He went out and spent big bucks on three expensive new toys for Wash to play with. 

    Eleven defensive players have been guaranteed $12-plus million in free agency. Three of them—cornerback A.J. Bouye, defensive end Calais Campbell and safety Barry Church—signed with the Jags. Campbell and Bouye are the two highest-paid defensive players in this year's class, and Church is the second-highest paid safety. 

    The three signed contracts worth $153.5 million, with $68 million guaranteed. They'll make a combined $35 million per year. And with those guys on board, Jacksonville has now committed $89 million to its defense for 2017—the second-highest mark in the NFL. 

    With Bouye and Church teaming up with Tashaun Gipson and Jalen Ramsey, Wash will have one of the most expensive and talented young secondaries in football. And with Campbell teaming up with Malik Jackson and Dante Fowler Jr. up front, he'll have one of the most expensive and talented defensive lines as well.

    Throw in linebackers Myles Jack and Paul Posluszny, and that's a heck of a group. 

    Christmas came in March for Todd Wash. 

Rex Burkhead

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    When a young free agent doesn't have a strong enough resume to strike gold in free agency, his priority should instead be to sign a short-term deal with a team that could give him a chance to break out. 

    That's exactly what running back Rex Burkhead did. 

    He signed a one-year, $3.15 million contract with the Patriots, which should give the talented but underused back a chance to explode under a larger spotlight. 

    Top Pats back LeGarrette Blount is gone, and Dion Lewis and James White aren't cut out to be lead dogs in the backfield. The Patriots have a reputation for recognizing underutilized talent and getting the most out of it, so don't be surprised if Burkhead is given a shot to become a stud in 2017. 

    Four years into his career with the Cincinnati Bengals, the 26-year-old finally earned his first career start in the 2016 season finale. The result: 144 yards from scrimmage on 29 touches, along with two touchdowns (doubling his career total), against Baltimore's highly rated defense. That might not have been an anomaly, because the former sixth-round pick out of Nebraska quietly averaged a solid 4.6 yards per carry on 74 attempts in 2016.

    As ESPN.com's Mike Reiss notedformer Patriots staffer Michael Lombardi described Burkhead as "the perfect four-down Patriots running back." 

    So while he's not earning big bucks yet, Burkhead's deal with New England might be looked back on a year from now as a huge victory. 

Minnesota Vikings

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    The Minnesota Vikings had the NFL's No. 3-rated defense in 2016, and the offense wasn't totally sunk by the loss of franchise quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Backup Sam Bradford was the league's sixth-highest rated passer. 

    The problem for Minnesota was the running game averaged a league-low 3.2 yards per carry and 75.3 rushing yards per game, while, according to Pro Football Focus, only two offensive lines were responsible for more sacks. 

    It didn't help that Minnesota spent the vast majority of the year without running back Adrian Peterson and bookend offensive tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith. But Peterson is beyond his prime and has struggled with a mere 2.9 yards-per-attempt average in his last nine games, while Kalil and Smith were abysmal when healthy in 2015 anyway. 

    It was time for the Vikings to move on from all three and replace them with younger talents, and that's exactly what they did in the first two weeks of free agency. 

    Replacing Peterson is Latavius Murray, who is a year removed from a 1,000-yard season and is coming off a 12-touchdown campaign in Oakland. Murray might not be an elite running back, but he's a better option than an overpriced, over-the-hill, recently unproductive back coming off a major injury. He'll provide a boost to the worst running game in the league.

    Replacing Kalil and Smith are Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. Reiff is a 28-year-old former first-round pick who has been a reliable starter for much of the last four years in Detroit. Remmers struggled as the league's most penalized player with the Panthers in 2016 but is at least a couple of years younger than Smith.

    Kalil got more guaranteed money than Reiff on the open market, and Remmers is costing them only $6 million a year. 

    They'll have to give more attention to the line and maybe even the running game in the draft, but this is a move in the right direction for a team that isn't flush with salary-cap space. It comes as the division-rival Packers remain idle. The Lions haven't improved significantly, either, essentially trading two decent offensive linemen (Reiff and Larry Warford) for two others (Ricky Wagner and T.J. Lang).

Bob Wylie

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    Looking to get more out of an offensive line that, according to PFF, was responsible for a league-high 33 sacks last season, the Browns hired veteran O-line coach Bob Wylie in January. 

    In March, they made Wylie's job a heck of a lot easier. 

    A line already anchored at left tackle by perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas added arguably the top center and guard on the open market when the Browns signed JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler early in free agency.

    Coming from the Packers, Tretter impressed in place of Corey Linsley late in 2015 and early in 2016 before suffering a season-ending knee injury in October. Zeitler, meanwhile, was graded by PFF as the third-best regular right guard in the league in 2016, and he was just as effective in 2015. 

    They didn't come cheaply—both were the highest-paid players at their respective positions in this year's free-agent class—but the Browns entered this process with a lot of money to spend, and Wylie's new unit has benefited most of all. 

    Congrats, Bob!

Atlanta Falcons

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    The Atlanta Falcons are trying to avoid what could become an epic Super Bowl hangover.

    The best strategy for that in real life is to drink plenty of water before bed. The best strategy in professional football is to avoid allowing core players to be lured away on what agent Leigh Steinberg calls "Super Bowl premiums."

    The good news for the Falcons is they didn't enter the offseason with any major players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. But general manager Thomas Dimitroff knew better than to be satisfied with that. His team will feel more pressure with higher expectations and a target on its back in 2017, especially considering how the 2016 season ended. 

    The Falcons had to get better, and that's exactly what they did. All it took was two affordable moves for potential difference-makers.

    Dimitroff added a ton of talent and experience to that young, somewhat small defense by bringing in massive-yet-nimble 26-year-old defensive tackle Dontari Poe, who'll cost only $8 million on a one-year deal despite the fact he already has two Pro Bowls on his resume.

    Then the Falcons gave a huge boost to their return game by adding one of the league's best return men in Andre Roberts, who had two punt-return touchdowns while also contributing as a depth receiver in Detroit in 2016.

    Roberts and first-team All-Pro Tyreek Hill were the only two qualified returners in the league to average more than 12 yards per punt return and 22 yards per kick return last season. He also comes on a one-year deal, this one for only $1.8 million. 

    That's how a good team avoids resting on laurels despite a lack of significant salary-cap space. Now we'll see how they feel in the morning. 

Free Agent Defensive Backs

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    Even with the salary cap continuing to skyrocket, bargains for starting-caliber players can usually still be found on the free-agent market. This year, talented backs and receivers (like Eddie Lacy and Terrelle Pryor), offensive linemen (like Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith) and front-seven defenders (like Dontari Poe, Chris Baker and Lorenzo Alexander) were signed for what felt like discounted prices. 

    But it didn't appear as though discounts were available on cornerbacks and safeties during the first wave of the 2017 free-agent season. 

    Corners A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore signed the largest contracts of the offseason, despite the fact neither has been elected to a Pro Bowl (Gilmore was an injury replacement in 2016). Those two deals—$67.5 million over five years, with $26 million guaranteed to Bouye; $65 million over five years, with $40 million guaranteed to Gilmore—wreaked havoc on the defensive back market. 

    Safety Tony Jefferson didn't do much during the first three years of his career with the Arizona Cardinals. He did break out with a standout 2016 campaign, but he entered free agency with just two interceptions in four NFL seasons. That didn't prevent him from landing a four-year, $34 million deal, with $19 million guaranteed in Baltimore. 

    Micah Hyde is a versatile defensive back with a nose for the football, but he's rarely been a regular starter at corner or safety, and he isn't strong in coverage. That didn't prevent him from landing a five-year, $30.5 million deal, with $14 million guaranteed in Buffalo. 

    In terms of total contract value, both Jefferson and Hyde are now among the 12 highest-paid safeties in the game. 

    Logan Ryan is now one of just 13 cornerbacks making $10-plus million a year. Barry Church hasn't been near a Pro Bowl in seven years, but he was guaranteed $12 million as part of a four-year, $26 million deal with Jacksonville. Johnathan Cyprien leveraged one good season into a $9 million guarantee in Tennessee. 

    For whatever reason, this was a heck of a year to be a solid DB with an expired contract. 

    Winners, all of 'em.