Suh, Murray and McPhee: What's a Top Free Agent Really Worth?March 5, 2015
With the start of free agency approaching like Christmas morning, visions of sugar plums are dancing in fans' heads: 310-pound All-Pro sugar plums with impulse-control issues, sugar plums that rush for 1,800 yards, extra-sweet sugar plums that were hiding at the bottom of some Baltimore bushel.
It's easy to fantasize about Ndamukong Suh turning your defensive line into a Super Bowl-caliber unit, DeMarco Murray bringing a rushing title to town or Pernell McPhee generating double-digit sacks once given a full-time role. It's harder to analyze these free agents, and others, and determine precisely what they are worth.
I put my analyst hat on this week and dove inside the game film and stat spreadsheets for some of the top free agents and surprise cuts who are about to hit the open market next. With big boosts from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus, the financial gurus at Over the Cap, the media-only oracle NFLGSIS, some advice from experts and a lot of NFL Game Rewind, let's determine the true values of the top free agents: what we can expect in 2015 and beyond, what they really offer their next employers and how much money their services are really worth.
When it comes to evaluating NFL defenders—and deciding what to pay them—there's J.J. Watt, and then there is everyone else.
Football Outsiders uses a pair of statistics called "Stops" and "Defeats" to organize the many things defenders do that show up on the stat sheet, from tackles and sacks to passes defensed, into convenient categories. The full definitions are very precise, but for our purposes we can think of a Stop as a good defensive play (a tackle for a three-yard gain on 2nd-and-12) and a Defeat as a great defensive play (a sack, interception or even a tackle for a gain of one on 3rd-and-2). Stops and Defeats filter out the statistical window dressing that results in linebackers generating 13 tackles in 38-10 losses.
Here are the 2014 season leaders in Defeats among defensive linemen, with Stops, Total Plays and Yards per Play listed for comparison:
|Defeats and Stops by Defensive Linemen, 2014|
|Player||Defeats||Stops||Total Plays||Yards Per Play|
Suh is the only 4-3 defensive tackle on the list. He is also one of only two players with a linemate who recorded 20 or more defeats. Ziggy Ansah tied for sixth among NFL linemen with 24 defeats, while Kyle Williams registered 22 defeats for the Bills to go with Super Mario's 25 (and Jerry Hughes added 19).
The table above shows that Suh ranks highly among defensive linemen and is arguably the top defensive tackle in the NFL, but it also indicates that he is unarguably not in the same category as Watt, who has now spent two seasons averaging about one major-impact Defeat per game more than the typical All-Pro lineman.
The same argument can be made using Pro Football Focus' metrics. Suh ranks third among defensive tackles behind rookie Aaron Donald and perennial Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy (McCoy and Suh would rank first and second if penalties did not have such a great impact on PFF rankings), while Watt has the highest rating of any player at any position in the NFL, by a margin of 40 points.
Watt's agent wouldn't claim that Watt was 40 points better than Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady if he and Dan Snyder were sharing their third bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, but that's not the point. If we think of Watt's reported $100 million contract as a symbolic barrier (the final two seasons are structured specifically to reach that magic nine-figure mark, after all), then there is no reason to think Suh should cross it. Watt is the NFL's only $100 million defender; neither Suh nor anyone else has similar impact.
The next benchmark contracts for Suh are Mario Williams (six years, $96 million reported, signed in 2012) and Gerald McCoy (six years, $95.2 million reported, signed in 2014). McCoy is interesting because he plays the same position and a similar role as Suh, and as noted above, his PFF rankings are neck-and-neck. Williams is an outside pass-rusher whose deal was a "statement" contract by the aging Ralph Wilson, but his deal is interesting because Suh will want to be the NFL's second-highest paid defender if no one is willing to make him the first.
Suh will likely receive a contract in this McCoy-Mario range, and his performance merits such an investment.
Defensive tackles produce low sack and tackle totals, making their total impact difficult to estimate. Suh recorded 8.5 sacks in the regular season—a very high total for a tackle—but an interior lineman's impact is supposed to be felt elsewhere: Ansah's sacks, DeAndre Levy's tackles near the line of scrimmage, Glover Quin's pressure-assisted interceptions. The team that signs Suh is looking for that broad impact, not eight or nine flash plays.
Levy's 16 tackles for a loss, Ansah's 26 quarterback hits (courtesy of NFLGSIS) and Quin's seven interceptions all demonstrate that Suh was doing something right. To further quantify Suh's effect on the Lions defense, I watched the All-22 game film of each of the Lions' 42 regular-season and six postseason sacks. I counted the number of times Suh was double-teamed, as well as the number of sacks by teammates that were "caused" by Suh's presence:
|Suh's Impact on Lions Stats|
|Sacks by Suh||11|
|Suh Double Teamed||16|
|Suh "Caused" Sack for Teammate||7|
|NFL Game Rewind/Film Study|
"Caused" is a loaded, arbitrary term. The seven sacks I marked were cases when Suh chased a quarterback into a fellow defender or plays in which he drew so much pass protection (the center, the guard and the blocking back in a few cases) that someone like rookie Caraun Reid is basically unblocked. If Suh ran an outside stunt and ate up two pass protectors so Ansah or Levy could sprint untouched to the quarterback, Suh "caused" the sack. Yes, McCoy or some other Pro Bowl defensive tackle could also make such a play, but your basic interior lineman doesn't eradicate two blockers when running a stunt.
I don't want to get carried away with "caused" sacks. I counted three instances when teammates flushed quarterbacks into Suh, and several of the Lions' sacks are best classified as coverage sacks. But this mini-study shows that Suh does create sack opportunities for teammates, even though he is not double-teamed quite as often as his reputation might suggest.
Suh's effectiveness on stunts really stands out, not just when watching Lions sacks but when breaking down other "pressure" plays. The figure below shows the Lions blitzing Tony Romo in the first quarter of the Wild Card playoff game. Suh, Ansah and a blitzer (safety Don Carey, No. 26) ran a stunt that also showed up several times on the regular-season film.
Suh (90) starts inside, then makes a hard outside move to smash into Zack Martin (70) and Jermey Parnell (78). His goal is to occupy both blockers so Ansah (94) can loop inside him and Carey can attack the edge. Suh blows up the blocking scheme so well that Ansah and Carey get free shots at Romo, who manages to squirt an off-target pass in Cole Beasley's general direction to avoid a sack.
Suh sacked Romo twice in a row in the fourth quarter, doing everything he could to knock the Cowboys out of field-goal range when the tide was turning against the Lions. Helping teammates is all well and good, but taking over playoff games is the type of thing that justifies a $90 million-plus contract.
The team that signs Suh adds about a dozen sacks: six to eight from Suh himself, and four to six from barely blocked teammates. With those sacks comes an uptick in hurries, hits and the mayhem that results. Suh's next employer also gets a capable anchor in run defense who made 16 tackles for no gain or a loss last year and helped the Lions finish third in the NFL in stuffs (courtesy of Football Outsiders).
Is Suh's next employer also getting a headcase? Suh committed two "roughness" penalties in 2014, three (counting tripping and facemasking as roughness) in 2013. Those are actually low totals for a pass-rusher; Watt drew five roughing-the-passer fouls last year, for example. Suh might not fit every team culture, but there are plenty of coaches/coordinators (Gus Bradley, Dan Quinn, Jack Del Rio, Ken Norton, Todd Bowles and anyone named Ryan) who will have no trouble seeing eye-to-eye with him. Broad-brushing Suh as "another Albert Haynesworth" is lazy and inaccurate. Suh may have some more quarterback-stomp penalties in him, but there is no reason to expect him to become a malcontent or malingerer.
That was a lot of writing to come to the conclusion that Ndamukong Suh is really good, though not as good as J.J. Watt. For my next trick, I will spend hundreds of words explaining that DeMarco Murray can gain a lot of yards, though not quite as many as he gained last year.
Murray faces three challenges as he enters the free-agent market:
1. The Curse of 370 is real.
2. The Cowboys offensive line inflated his 2014 production.
3. It's 2015, so most NFL general managers are wise to those first two points.
The Curse of 370—a decade-old nugget of Football Outsiders research that proves running backs suffer significant production declines after high-carry seasons—is not a magic spell. A running back's ACLs do not pop after his 371st carry, nor does benching him at 368 carries ensure good health or a bountiful harvest. Tires don't automatically burst on the freeway if you go 30,000 miles without a rotation either.
But the research is overwhelming. Only rare running backs like Eric Dickerson and LaDainian Tomlinson can handle 370-plus carry loads for multiple seasons without either suffering injuries or the wear-and-tear that turns them into ordinary running backs.
Just in case you think Murray is a Dickerson or Tomlinson, here are his per-carry breakdowns by month last year:
|DeMarco Murray's Yards per Carry by Month, 2014|
|Month||Yards||Yards per Carry|
Mileage was already taking its toll on Murray by the end of last season, though he rebounded with an excellent playoff game against the Packers. The Cowboys were already overusing Murray by the middle of autumn. Their relative indifference to re-signing him suggests they knew it.
The Cowboys are also aware that they have one of the best offensive lines in football, allowing them to plug 'n' play average running backs. This point can be overstated: The Cowboys line helped Murray, but Murray was not simply a "product" of the line.
Football Outsiders uses the "Adjusted Line Yards" metric to separate the runner from the line as much as possible, by separating carries into bins that credit the blockers for what they are most likely to be responsible for (avoiding runs for a loss, consistent short gains by backups) and the backs for what they are responsible for (yards gained once they are through the hole and several yards downfield). It's complicated, but here's the short version: The Cowboys line led the league in Adjusted Line Yards, but Murray and the backups finished second in the league in Second Level Yards (production five to 10 yards downfield, usually the result of cutbacks or broken tackle) and first in Open Field Yards (11 yards downfield and outrunning the safeties).
Football Outsiders calculates that Murray gained 381 yards last season that the typical "replacement level" runner (a typical backup) would not have gained, the highest total in the NFL. But that figure (a) is not fully adjusted for the Cowboys line, and (b) is inflated by his 393 carries. As a gross estimate based on the FO data and dead reckoning, I estimate the 2014 Cowboys could help an ordinary running back average 4.2 yards per carry. Murray chipped in the extra 0.5 yards per play himself. Given a reasonable 320-carry workload and a typical offensive line, he would probably produce 150-200 yards that a team cannot get in the second round of the draft, plus significant value as a receiver.
All of these estimations assume that Murray's hamstrings don't look like the timing belt of a 1988 Taurus after last season.
If you know statistics, you know that 150-200 marginal rushing yards are nothing to turn your nose up at. It's enough to help the Colts host their next playoff game against the Patriots, or take a ton of pressure off a developing quarterback. The problem is that 150-200 marginal yards are not something to invest $62 million (Shaun Alexander's zeitgeist-changing 2006 contract figure) in, either. Teams have spent the last 15 years learning that most running backs are interchangeable and that the traits that make a handful of running backs unique only last two or three years.
Murray is going to sign a Matt Forte or LeSean McCoy-style contract: four years, somewhere around $35 million. Forte has been worth it: durable and dependable for a team that has spent two seasons bouncing between crises. As for McCoy: You read the Internet, so you know the Eagles just traded him to escape the last two years of his contract.
Forte rushed for 1,038 yards last year, adding 808 more as a receiver but averaging just 3.9 yards per carry. McCoy rushed for 1,319 yards and 4.3 yards per carry, adding 155 receiving yards. Average the two backs and you get 1,178 rushing yards, 481 rushing yards, and 4.1 yards per rush. Those are the kinds of numbers I expect from Murray in 2015. You can tweak them to 1,250 rushing yards and 400 receiving yards if you don't see him catching that many passes.
Is that production worth $8 million per year? Maybe in the first year. It's the third and fourth years you really have to worry about.
McPhee is a trendy free agent, a pass-rusher who is so "off the radar" that he is on everyone's radar. McPhee recorded 7.5 sacks and 26 quarterback knockdowns as a situational defender last season, so it's not hard to project him as a double-digit sack producer. Pro Football Focus ranked McPhee second among 3-4 outside linebackers, below Justin Houston, which is pretty impressive for a defender who played about half of his team's snaps. The PFF ranking adds to McPhee's "insider" appeal: McPhee's stat totals may be low, but those "in the know" rank him higher than teammates Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil!
My concerns with McPhee start with just when and how he recorded all of those sacks and quarterback hits:
• McPhee registered two sacks and three hits against the Falcons, whose offensive line was in shambles in Week 7. Center Peter Konz (who started the season as a backup) was injured early in the game, forcing reserve guard James Stone to play center. Jake Matthews was in the midst of a rookie-lump disaster at left tackle, while Gabe Carimi was pressed into service on the right side.
• McPhee registered 1.5 sacks and four hits against the Jaguars in Week 15. The Jaguars were having their usual Jaguars issues, of course.
• McPhee recorded two sacks and three hits against the Browns in the season finale. Connor Shaw was the Browns' starting quarterback in that game.
That's 5.5 of McPhee's 7.5 sacks that came during shark-attack situations.
Some of McPhee's other big games were also a little flaky. Pro Football Focus gives him a gaudy 4.2 pass-rush rating against the Panthers in Week 4; it's McPhee's highest rating of the year from PFF. The Panthers' starting linemen that week were Byron Bell, Amini Silatolu, Ryan Kalil, Fernando Velasco and Nate Chandler, with Trai Turner replacing Velasco halfway through the game. The Ravens applied seven hits to Cam Newton: three by Dumervil, one by Suggs, one by McPhee and one by Brynden Trawick, who sounds like a Harry Potter classmate. The Ravens took a 28-7 lead midway through the third quarter and could pin their ears back for the rest of the game. McPhee played well, but he was defeating unprepared linemen in an out-of-hand situation.
Close examination of McPhee's game film shows just how much of his 2014 production was situational. The figure below shows McPhee (90) lined up almost as a three-technique defensive tackle in an obvious passing situation at the end of the Jaguars game. McPhee, who is actually standing up half-a-yard from the line of scrimmage (as opposed to the three-point stance a defensive tackle would take) runs a stunt with Suggs (55) while Dumervil (58) attacks from the other side of the formation. Suggs beats both tight end Marcedes Lewis (83) and tackle Luke Joeckel (76) to quarterback Blake Bortles (5). There is no one to block the looping McPhee but running back Jordan Todman (30), who simply misses. Suggs flushes Bortles into McPhee, who gets a sack that was caused more by his teammate, the opponent and the situation than by any special effort on his part.
All pass-rushers have sacks on their records that are the result of teammate efforts, schemes or inept blocking. But McPhee is lined up between Suggs and Dumervil, usually against some team with awful pass protection, on most of his plays that make the stat sheets. Rating him on a play-by-play basis simply does not account for the fact that he was the third most dangerous pass-rusher on a team that faced numerous opponents with serious offensive issues.
Teams that play mix-and-match with fronts and pass-rushers will see a lot to like in McPhee. At 280 pounds, he can legitimately play the 3rd-and-long defensive tackle position, but he also has the speed and quickness to be an edge rusher and disrupter on neutral downs. Teams like the Eagles, Chiefs or Packers can slide him all over the formation in search of mismatches; those teams also have marquee pass-rushers (assuming the Chiefs mollify Houston) who can work in tandem with McPhee. Of the three, only the Eagles have the cap dollars and inclination to sign a pass-rusher this season.
If a conventional 4-3 team drops McPhee at defensive end as an edge rusher, or an old-school 3-4 defense sends him around the left tackle on down after down, they may find that they signed a high-energy six-sack contributor for a Pro Bowl price. Think of McPhee as the third-down running back who averages 5.5 yards per carry on draw plays or the fourth outfielder who only plays when he has a platoon advantage. His tape isn't lying to you, but you must look carefully to see what it is really saying.
Let's move quickly through several of the high-profile veterans who were released last week or who may be released in the next few days.
Andre Johnson: Johnson has not been cut or traded yet, but he is channeling his inner Englebert Humperdink and singing "Please Release Me" to the Texans, who now see him as a combination fourth receiver and Director of Community Relations.
Johnson dropped nine passes last year, according to Pro Football Focus. I went back and watched the drops. Most of them were routine plays in which Johnson was open and the pass was well thrown. Some of the drops were just ugly, like one in the second quarter of the Week 13 matchup with the Titans, when a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass just bounced off Johnson's belly.
Frequent drops are a sign of the beginning of the end for a veteran receiver. They mean that he is losing the quick-twitch coordination to snatch NFL-caliber passes consistently. While Johnson's statistical decline last year can partially be blamed on the revolving-door quarterbacks, the drops tell the story of age taking a rapid toll.
If the Texans trade or release Johnson, he will get invited to some training camp as a veteran stabilizer. Because of his limited special teams value and declining skills, he will have a hard time earning a roster spot away from younger, more versatile receivers. If he makes a regular-season roster, it will only be for a team that compulsively collects veterans for the back of the bench. The Redskins, in other words.
Reggie Bush, DeAngelo Williams and Chris Johnson (The Three Tenors). It's hard to let go of these guys. Bush and CJ2K were reliable go-to players for he's so overrated articles for years, so I am sorry to see them go. Williams, too: It's not his fault he signed a crazy contract, but it made him a fine cautionary tale of the dangers of locking running backs into long, guaranteed deals.
Bush still has some theoretical value as a third-down back, but the Bush Baggage is back: Seeing his name connected with the Darren Sharper situation isn't going to make anyone eager to open the checkbook.
Johnson is a theoretical big-play back whose longest run from scrimmage in the last two seasons gained 47 yards.
Though he turns 32 before the draft, Williams may be the most useful of the bunch. He ranked 12th in the NFL in Football Outsiders' DVOA in 2013, adds some receiving value, has a solid rep as a pass protector and missed most of last season with a hand injury, as opposed to a nagging hamstring or ACL tear that could affect his running ability this year. A team like the Steelers that could use an early season starter who transitions into a low-risk third-down back could benefit from Williams' services, assuming the contract is brief and incentive laden.
That said, I would rather have Duke Johnson than any of them.
Cary Williams: Williams is like Two Face from the Batman comics. He flips a coin before each game. If it comes up heads, he's weak tea Richard Sherman. If it's tails, he plays like he is having a snit about running too much during Chip Kelly's practices.
Williams and Bradley Fletcher gave the Eagles an awful cornerback tandem last year. Williams was the better of the two, but that's like comparing New York weather to Boston weather this winter. Pro Football Focus charges Fletcher with giving up 17.6 yards per reception and nine touchdowns last year. Williams allowed a less-alarming 13.5 yards per catch and five touchdowns. Fletcher committed four pass-interference fouls and three holds, Williams one pass-interference foul, three holds and two contact fouls. Football Outsiders ranked the Eagles defense 31st in the NFL against deep passes. Eagles safeties were nothing special, but the pass rush was generally very good. The cornerbacks were the problem.
Williams falls into the Antonio Cromartie category. Teams will live with the blunders and grumbles because he can match up with bigger receivers and bait quarterbacks into interceptions. He fits best as the No. 2 cornerback because teams want a steadier defender as their top cornerback, and Williams is a bad matchup against quicker receivers.
Teams overpay cornerbacks in this class because they crave the size-speed package, and they usually opt for short-term deals because they know a future ibuprofen headache when they see one. Williams can be useful, but with both of them on the market, I would rather rent Cromartie.
Brian Hartline: Hartline is the receiver you throw 133 passes to per year if you plan to go 8-8 until the sun cools into a black cinder. He has been sure-handed, durable and reliable, but he gives you exactly what the defense is willing to give you; no more and perhaps a little less. Hartline missed or avoided nine tackles in the last four years, according to Pro Football Focus. That's pretty remarkable for a player with 224 receptions, most of them short.
Hartline tailed off badly late last season when Jarvis Landry arrived and showed the Dolphins what a possession receiver really looks like. Hartline is only 28 years old, but we should probably think of him as a career 35-45-catch role player whose back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons were the result of playing for some outlaw team in Ireland. Hartline would have a better opportunity to stick on some roster as a third-down possession receiver if he had not just lost a similar role to the second-best rookie receiver from LSU.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.