NFL Free Agency 2017: Reviewing the Biggest Steals

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMarch 29, 2017

NFL Free Agency 2017: Reviewing the Biggest Steals

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    Free agency is a game of sorts, and the goal is clear on both sides.

    The players need to take advantage of what is often their only opportunity to truly cash in and extract as much money as possible from the open market.

    The mission ahead for teams is more complex. Front offices pursue value, aiming to maximize all their financial resources. The aim is to squeeze every last bit of production out of each dollar. To do that, there's a constant chase after the free-agency steal.

    A steal isn't just a player signed to a contract below market value that year compared to his position peers. Well, it is that, but it's also more. Whether a player becomes a steal is determined later on by if he's able to outperform his contract.

    The jackpot is when the team pays less for more. The challenge every March is factoring in age, recent performance and likely future growth to determine which players can be signed cheaply now but play like expensive acquisitions later.

    Sometimes the steals are maturing youngsters like wide receiver Kenny Stills. Sometimes they're veterans such as 35-year-old tackle Andrew Whitworth, who refuses to acknowledge his body's natural aging process. Or sometimes, steals can be late bloomers like outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander or safety Quintin Demps.

    Now that the free-agency dust has mostly settled, let's take a closer look at the most notable steals from 2017 if these guys play as expected.    

Terrelle Pryor Signing with the Washington Redskins

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    No one can definitively say what Terrelle Pryor Sr. will become. Which is why the Washington Redskins pounced on an ideal opportunity.

    Pryor's first year as a wide receiver in 2016 was more than promising. It was borderline mind-melting. Starting a new position at the age of 27 and doing it in the NFL shouldn't be easy. No, it should be incredibly hard to the point that the player in question is nearly broken mentally.

    But there was Pryor in 2016, humming along merrily with three 100-plus yard games, and 1,007 receiving yards overall on 77 catches. He did all that while displaying his seemingly effortless athleticism that led to weekly acrobatics.

    Always remember too that Pryor's remarkable production as essentially a rookie wide receiver came with the Cleveland Browns and their quarterback carnival ride. Because of both injuries and mostly just plain awfulness, five Browns quarterbacks logged at least 20-plus pass attempts in 2016, making it perhaps the worst offense for a receiver still learning how to, well, be a receiver.

    Yet Pryor thrived, which fuels the strong belief that he can catapult forward and his talent ceiling is still far away.

    But there is a fear of the unknown. Pryor is one year and only 15 starts into his career as a receiver, and he's still plugging away at a late-career transition. As more film on him gets out there, defenses could develop a blueprint to put at least a partial lid on his home run catches.

    There was some risk and uncertainty in signing him, then. That means there was also a bargain to be had.

    The Redskins signed Pryor to the classic one-year prove-it deal worth only $6 million. If he continues to explode, they'll have the inside track on re-signing him to an extension. And in the meantime, Pryor will be a key piece in a rocket-fueled offense, with fellow wide receivers Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson also providing plenty of deep speed while tight end Jordan Reed streaks up the seam.

    There's a whole lot for opposing defenses to be worried about in Washington. And if Pryor can post 1,000-plus receiving yards with the likes of Cody Kessler and Josh McCown throwing to him, he should easily outperform his contract when paired with Kirk Cousins.

Torrey Smith Signing with the Philadelphia Eagles

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    It feels like Torrey Smith should be much older than 28. Maybe that's because spending even two seasons in the San Francisco 49ers offense puts the aging process into overdrive, with the hourglass sand gushing down instead of gently trickling.

    But Smith is still relatively young, and at worst, he should have a minimum of three prime years left. The Philadelphia Eagles will now control all of those years for the absurdly low cost of $15 million.

    His deal is a twist on the standard one-year contract. You know, the one that amounts to a team saying this: "You were really good once, but now who knows? Let's see whatcha got."

    The key difference here is that the Eagles have an immediate out after one season. The 2018 and 2019 seasons are club options, and the best part is that Smith is guaranteed only pennies by NFL standards. He secured a mere $500,000, per Spotrac, which is the league equivalent of the money found at the bottom of washing machines in laundromats.

    The Eagles desperately needed multiple deep threats to support the development of 2016 No. 2 overall pick Carson Wentz, their quarterback whose rookie season was filled with high peaks and the deepest valleys. They have multiple weapons now between Smith and Alshon Jeffery.

    And after two years of dealing with the circus crew of quarterbacks in San Francisco, there's plenty of reason to believe Smith can rediscover his early career form. Please recall that he averaged 17.4 yards per reception in two straight seasons with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012 and 2013.

Andrew Whitworth Signing with the Los Angeles Rams

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    Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    Age doesn't matter with tackle Andrew Whitworth, or at least it hasn't yet. And the Los Angeles Rams smartly structured his new contract in such a way that the number of candles on his birthday cake will keep being only a minor detail.

    Whitworth is 35 years old but is still playing at a top-tier level among the league's best blindside protectors. He's allowed a mere nine sacks over the past three seasons, according to Pro Football Focus, and in 2016, he gave up just 15 pressures. Whitworth has also logged three straight 16-game seasons even as his age clock keeps ticking into the mid-30s and beyond.

    Every sign points to Whitworth being a tackle who continues to age gracefully and can keep being an effective blocker for several more years. But the open market still can't ignore the possibility of a sudden age-induced tumble, even if that's not likely. That is why the Rams are able to employ a premier left tackle and not pay for one.

    Whitworth signed a three-year contract worth $33.75 million, but only $15 million is guaranteed. And of that guaranteed cash, just $2.5 million remains after 2017, meaning Los Angeles can move on then at little cost.

    That total guaranteed money ranks a lowly 24th among tackles, per Spotrac. It gets better for the Rams, as Whitworth's average annual salary of $11.25 million over the three-year period ranks outside of the top 10 at his position.

    The Rams inserted a core pillar along their offensive line and did it without paying a premium cost in a tackle-starved market.

Lorenzo Alexander Re-Signing with the Buffalo Bills

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    This is another case when age deflated what a top performer could have made on the open market if he were even just a few years younger. That was half of the equation for outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander's minimal return in free agency and why the Buffalo Bills were able to re-sign him so cheaply.

    The other half, of course, was Alexander's sudden outburst in 2016. It felt like not just seeing a mirage but living in it for a year.

    In his 11th NFL season, Alexander finally received something resembling consistent playing time as a pass-rusher as the Bills used him on 73.4 percent of their defensive snaps. Prior to 2016, he had spent most of his career with the Washington Redskins while providing valuable pass-rushing depth and thriving as a special teams ace. In 2012, he was even named to the Pro Bowl for his special teams play.

    He entered 2016 with a tiny career sack total, having logged only nine quarterback takedowns over 10 seasons. Then he erupted and matched that total by just Week 7.

    Alexander led the league in sacks for much of the 2016 season and eventually finished tied for third with 12.5. That was only one sack behind the Broncos' Von Miller, who's far more established. Alexander was just three shy of the Falcons' Vic Beasley, who led the league.

    His reward? Only $9 million over two years and $4.1 million guaranteed.

    Don't shed any tears for him, as that's still a tidy sum for someone who was a nobody on the league's pass-rusher circuit until his age-33 season. It's a deal that allows everyone to win. If Alexander can repeat even, say, 75 percent of his 2016 production in 2017 while getting paid a base salary of only $2 million, his legacy will grow as an unearthed gem who keeps contributing.

    And if he can't, then the contract becomes just another low-risk gamble that didn't quite pay off.

Jared Cook Signing with the Oakland Raiders

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    Jared Cook will be 30 years old before the start of the 2017 season. That means with a two-year contract, the Oakland Raiders have purchased what could be his last remaining prime years and did so for only a modest price.

    A tight end who recorded 229 receiving yards in the 2017 playoffs while making key catches deep down the sideline will be playing under a contract that guarantees him only $5 million. Overall, Cook's new contract is worth $10.6 million throughout the two years, and his average salary ranks 21st among tight ends.

    Cook's career has been filled with so, so much teasing and plenty of booming followed by busting. He did a bit of both in 2016 for the Green Bay Packers, though he prominently displayed his speed up the seam and his ability to make difficult, contested catches late in the year when it mattered most.

    After missing time because of an ankle injury, a healthy Cook averaged 67.8 receiving yards per game over the final six weeks of the season, including the playoffs. That stretch also featured at least one 20-plus-yard catch in five of the six games and two postseason touchdowns.

    If that Cook doesn't arrive to Oakland and the frustrating version comes over instead, the Raiders can move on fast and free of charge after 2017, with only a failed one-year experiment leaving a small stain.

    But if he jells nicely with rising quarterback Derek Carr and complements an offense filled with other threatening weapons, then the Raiders have control over an athletically gifted tight end for another year at the still affordable cost of $5 million in 2018.

    The deal has the potential to be a major win for a franchise that didn't have many of them in free agency for a long time.

Chris Baker Signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Chris Baker has been one of the league's more underrated sources of bulldozing edge muscle for a while now.

    As a 3-4 defensive end with the Washington Redskins, he collected 9.5 sacks over the past two seasons, and in 2016, he was often a disruptive force with his 42 pressures. That tied for eighth in his position group, and Baker was also effective against the run while recording 45-plus tackles for the second straight year.

    At 6'2" and 320 pounds, he can be a menacing interior presence too, which is likely how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers intend to use him after signing him to a three-year deal worth $15.75 million.

    The key figure in Baker's new contract is the only $9 million guaranteed. That begins to feel like loose change when he slides inside to become an interior pass-rusher and run-stuffer. The guaranteed money Baker is set to receive ranks 23rd among defensive tackles, per Spotrac.

    Baker will turn 30 midway through the 2017 season, and barring injury, he should still be able to play at a high level throughout the life of his new contract. During that time, he'll be one-half of a formidable inside tandem alongside Gerald McCoy.

Kenny Stills Re-Signing with the Miami Dolphins

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    It was a strange year for wide receiver contracts. Their value was mostly suppressed because of some flaw or concern tied to the player trying to get paid.

    For Pryor, it was uncertainty about repeating one strong season after his transition. For the Eagles' Alshon Jeffery, injuries and a recent suspension led to his settling for a one-year deal. And for Kenny Stills, it was the fact that as a fourth-year receiver he's only now starting to rediscover himself in head coach Adam Gase's offense.

    Stills re-signed with the Miami Dolphins, agreeing to a four-year contract that will pay him $31.9 million, with $19.95 million guaranteed. So no, his bank account won't be hurting, but the Dolphins were able to retain a young and ridiculously fast receiver (4.38 40-yard dash) at a bargain price.

    In this case, the steal is the potential for what Stills can become in the near future.

    He had the misfortune of hitting free agency before truly exploding and doing it at the still ripe age of 24 years old. That was both bad timing for him and wonderful timing for the Dolphins. Now, Stills will be chained to Miami throughout his late 20s at an average cost of $7.98 million per year.

    That's over $1.5 million per year less than what Pierre Garcon will make throughout his new contract with the San Francisco 49ers, and he's roughly five years older than Stills. Garcon is likely nearing the end of his peak, while Stills is just entering his prime after averaging 17.3 yards per reception and scoring a career-high nine times in 2016.

Quintin Demps Signing with the Chicago Bears

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    We talk about age so much throughout free agency that it can make normal, non-football humans feel ancient at 32. That's a graying age at most football positions because of the brutality of the sport, so it's refreshing to see safety Quintin Demps fighting the good fight.

    Demps blossomed late in his career, and over the last few seasons, he's turned into a constant ball thief. He recorded a career-high six interceptions in 2016 and has created 18 turnovers since 2013.

    Of course, age always comes armed with a heavy hammer on the open market. That meant the Chicago Bears could still get him at a discounted price, even though Demps bloomed late and even though his body is fresher than the average soon-to-be 32-year-old after not getting his first regular-season start until 2013.

    The Bears signed him to a three-year deal that pays a total of $13.5 million, though just $5 million of that is guaranteed. If he finishes the contract, Demps will get get an average of $4.5 million each year, which is tied for 30th among safeties.

    That's a dollar-store-level price for a defender who has logged four-plus interceptions during three of the past four seasons.

    Advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.