Regrading Biggest Free-Agent NFL Moves from the 2016 Offseason
Every March the NFL buries the top free agents in sweet, sweet mostly non-guaranteed money. Then one year later, some of them are already on different rosters, others are trending toward being cut, and there's a strong stench of failure in the air.
With some exceptions (looking at you, New York Giants), free agency isn't how a well-managed team solves its problems. No, free agency is how problems are created, and how the Houston Texans came to rely on Brock Osweiler.
That was one disaster from the 2016 free-agency period. Close behind Jones is the contract the Jacksonville Jaguars gave Chris Ivory. Both come with heavy regret.
But after one year, there are plenty of success stories too, with the right player plugged into the perfect role. The Baltimore Ravens, for example, are still getting quality coverage out of an aging but effective Eric Weddle. And the Oakland Raiders' offensive line was solidified by the addition of guard Kelechi Osemele.
What other hits and misses are clear already? Let's go back and regrade the top signings of 2016.
New York Giants Signing Defensive End Olivier Vernon
The New York Giants took this not-so-bold strategy in the 2016 offseason: Let's throw a lot of money at our problems and then hope everything works out.
Often that ends in tears and wasted dollars. The most infamous example of such a fiery fate was the Philadelphia Eagles dream team that turned into a nightmare fast.
But the 2016 Giants quickly became an example of the opposite. They swung their mighty money hammer while focusing on improving a last-ranked defense that gave up an average of 420.3 yards per game in 2015. And it worked more than once.
The most significant and expensive addition was defensive end Olivier Vernon. The Giants signed him to a massive five-year deal worth $85 million, with $52.5 million guaranteed. At the time it was the most lucrative deal ever for a defensive end in terms of guaranteed money.
Vernon was valued that highly in part because of his age. One year into that deal, he's still only 26 years old and is just entering his prime. On the surface he may seem overvalued after producing 8.5 sacks in 2016 and logging just one double-digit sack season over a five-year career.
But a world where we judge pass-rushers solely by their sack totals isn't a place any of us should want to live.
Vernon recorded 86 pressures during his first season in New York, which was the league's second-highest total behind only the Raiders' Khalil Mack, according to Pro Football Focus. That wasn't an outlier season either, as Vernon tallied 30 quarterback hits in 2015 to lead edge defenders, and he's also logged a league-leading 142 pressures from the right side over the past two seasons, per PFF.
He anchored a Giants pass rush that went from weak to wrecking ball, surging from 23 sacks in 2015 to 35 in 2016.
Jacksonville Jaguars Signing Defensive Tackle Malik Jackson
The Jacksonville Jaguars have chucked money at their defensive problems too. But they've paced themselves over two offseasons, and they started with defensive tackle Malik Jackson.
Jackson benefited from fortunate timing because he hit free agency at the ripe age of 26 years old, and he had just recorded a career single-season-high 45 tackles. He was a central figure in a steamrolling defense that propelled the Broncos to a championship in 2015.
That earned Jackson a cash waterfall from the Jaguars worth $85.5 million over six years, and he received the fifth-most guaranteed money among defensive tackles ($42 million). After one season, he's justified his mammoth contract by consistently collapsing the pocket up the middle.
Jackson set another single-season high in 2016 when he recorded 6.5 sacks. Even more impressively, he also finished the season with 55 total pressures, which ranked fifth among interior defensive linemen per PFF.
Oakland Raiders Signing Guard Kelechi Osemele
The Oakland Raiders' offensive line has turned into five men who collectively deliver a firm right hook to dizzy opposing defenses. And reeling in guard Kelechi Osemele during free agency gave the Raiders that extra bit of force to impose their will physically.
Powered by Osemele sealing off running lanes, the Raiders averaged 120.1 rushing yards per game, the league's sixth-highest output. They also finished tied for the sixth-most rushing touchdowns with 17.
But the real leap forward came from the improved pass protection. The Raiders went from allowing 33 sacks in 2015 to a league-low 18 in 2016.
Osemele was one of only two guards to play 1,000-plus snaps without allowing a sack in 2016, per PFF. He was named to his first All-Pro team and should be the foundation of Oakland's offensive line for many years to come.
Or at least for another four years, after which he's due to get showered with riches again.
New York Giants Re-Signing Defensive End Jason Pierre-Paul
It feels like defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul should be much older than 28. That's partly because he entered the league at such a young age, recording 4.5 sacks as a raw 21-year-old. And mostly because his career has had the highest peaks and the lowest valleys.
Pierre-Paul finished with 16.5 sacks in 2011, which was just his second season. Then a back problem zapped him of some explosiveness, and he totaled only 8.5 sacks over the next two years before surging again to 12.5 in 2014.
Then in 2015, a fireworks mishap meant he had to adjust and play without his right index finger. How did that go? Well enough for Pierre-Paul to record 41 pressures and six batted passes in only eight games, per PFF, even with a club on his hand.
That earned him the standard one-year "prove it" deal in 2016. Pierre-Paul responded with seven sacks and 53 tackles in 12 games during the 2016 season, forming a formidable pass-rushing tandem with Vernon. Eventually he was rewarded with a long-team deal and signed a four-year contract worth $62 million in 2017.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Re-Signing Running Back Doug Martin
This is an exercise rooted in hindsight. One question is being asked repeatedly: If Team X had a mulligan, would this signing happen again?
The answer with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and running back Doug Martin is mixed at best.
At first it would seem to be a clear and emphatic "NOPE" based on what Martin gave them after the Buccaneers made him the fourth-highest-paid running back based on average annual salary. That's the answer I'll go with too, which is reflected in the grade below. Martin plodded and plummeted to a career-low 2.9 yards per carry in 2016. Worse, he posted a drain-circling per-game average of 52.6 rushing yards, down dramatically from 87.6 yards in 2015.
But the raving and drooling over how Martin has looked all offseason now leads to hope he could rise from the ashes once more and justify his $15 million in guaranteed money.
Martin will sit out three games to begin the 2017 season while serving the rest of a suspension for violating the league's drug policy. But upon his return we might see the old Martin. As in, the 2015 Martin who ran for 1,402 yards.
Bucs general manager Jason Licht told NFL Network's Mike Garafolo that the best version of Martin has been on the practice field, saying he's "lean" and running with authority. We'll see if he can recapture his muscle hamster ways.
New York Giants Signing Cornerback Janoris Jenkins
The Giants' offseason of making it rain also included signing Janoris Jenkins, one of the top cornerbacks available. It was a signing that came with a little more risk than the Vernon and Pierre-Paul splashes.
Jenkins had always been a physically tenacious corner whose aggressiveness led to quality one-on-one coverage. That was reflected in his 49 passes defensed prior to 2016 over 60 career games.
But there were also times when aggressiveness was Jenkins' downfall and he would get roasted. Basically, Jenkins is your friend who's 20 minutes early to everything.
He leans on instincts to anticipate the route and where the ball is going. Often that works out well, which is how he's hauled in 13 career interceptions over five seasons. But frequently enough it didn't work out well at all. Before joining the Giants, the now 28-year-old had allowed the fifth-most 20-plus-yard plays over a four-year period, per PFF.
A desperate team rich with cap space took a gamble, hoping the better, swarming version of Jenkins would show up more often. Which is exactly what happened in 2016.
Jenkins was a key piece in the one-year turnaround of the Giants' secondary. The unit went from giving up a league-worst 298.9 passing yards per game in 2015 to 251.1 in 2016, largely because of Jenkins, who allowed only 50 percent of the passes thrown his way to be caught.
Oakland Raiders Signing Linebacker Bruce Irvin
The Raiders signed outside linebacker Bruce Irvin to support the pass-rushing efforts of defensive end Khalil Mack, and to set the edge against the run.
He did plenty of both during a year when the 29-year-old wasn't asked to drop back into coverage as much and could therefore focus more on what's in front of him. That resulted in Irvin being unleashed to pursue quarterbacks and running backs.
In 2016, he recorded seven sacks while also setting a new career single-season best in tackles with 57, blowing away his previous high watermark of 40 tackles.
If defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. can stay healthy and live up to his second-round draft pedigree, the Raiders could have a scary pass-rushing trio.
Baltimore Ravens Signing Safety Eric Weddle
Eventually Eric Weddle won't be a tenacious ball-swatter who hurls a mean physical hammer. Time is a cold and heartless enemy, and he's entering his age-32 season.
But that day is still being delayed until some unknown future date. For now he'll still be a steady figure in the Baltimore Ravens' secondary and one of the league's premier strong safeties.
Weddle was a key acquisition for the 2016 Ravens as a free agent. He gave them plenty on a minimal investment after his age lowered the cost for his services. A four-year contract that pays him an average of $6.5 million annually makes Weddle the league's 13th-highest-paid safety.
Meanwhile, Weddle's 17 passes defensed in 2016 finished tied for second among all safeties, and his four interceptions put him joint-10th among all defensive backs.
Houston Texans Signing Running Back Lamar Miller
When the Arian Foster era ended, the Houston Texans needed a solution at running back and preferably a long-term one. The best way to complement a top-tier defense is with a running game that will also regularly kick opponents in the teeth.
That's why the Texans wanted some firm footing for the future of their backfield, even though the cheaper dime-a-dozen running back strategy of loading up and seeing what sticks (also known as the Belichick Backfield) is always available.
So they pursued Lamar Miller, who had impressed during his limited opportunities over the previous two seasons with the Miami Dolphins. Between 2014 and 2015 Miller averaged 4.8 yards per carry, and he proved to be a reliable pass-catcher with 672 receiving yards. He scored 19 total touchdowns over that two-year period as well.
When he came over to the Texans, his per-carry average declined to 4.0. But that was largely due to overuse, as Miller's 268 carries easily shattered his previous season high of 216. He slowed as the year progressed and eventually missed the final two games due to an ankle injury.
Miller was still effective though while running with decisive power through the hole. He ended the season with four 100-plus-yard rushing games and 1,261 yards from scrimmage.
The Texans used a third-round pick on running back D'Onta Foreman in 2017. Less could be more with Miller going forward if Foreman takes on a chunk of the backfield workload.
Chicago Bears Signing Linebacker Danny Trevathan
When he's healthy, Danny Trevathan is one of the NFL's best coverage linebackers. But being on a football field without suffering a gruesome injury has become a problem for the 27-year-old; one that shortened his first season with the Chicago Bears in 2016 and could lead to missed time in 2017.
Trevathan ruptured his patellar tendon halfway through his debut season in Chicago. That's one of the most crippling injuries a football player can endure, and it comes with potentially long-lasting effects. Trevathan is a linebacker who relies on quick-twitch burst to capitalize on his high-level coverage instincts. That may prove difficult going forward if some of his natural athleticism is zapped.
Tight end Jimmy Graham's incredible recovery from the same injury gives Trevathan hope. Graham tore his patellar tendon in late November 2015 and then surpassed even the wildest expectations to catch 65 balls for 923 yards in 2016. But for every Graham there's a Victor Cruz, the former Giants standout who went over 700 days between receptions after tearing his patellar tendon in 2014.
A healthy Trevathan can still be a versatile three-down linebacker for the Bears. It's just hard to see that day coming anytime soon, and the Bears were well aware of his medical history after Trevathan also dislocated his kneecap in 2014.
He's now missed 21 games over the past three seasons.
Houston Texans Signing Quarterback Brock Osweiler
Here's a good general rule to use when assessing contracts and free-agent signings: If a player inked to a deal guaranteeing him $37 million is elsewhere one year later, something has gone horribly wrong.
And "horribly wrong" best summarizes the entire Brock Osweiler experience for the Houston Texans. The quarterback went from supposed savior to salary dump in less than a year.
The Texans' quarterback desperation is well documented. It's a long, painful part of their franchise history that hopefully reached its merciful conclusion with a trade up to get Deshaun Watson in the 2017 draft.
That move was made necessary because Osweiler became one of the worst free-agent busts in NFL history.
In a league where the demand for franchise-changing quarterbacks doesn't come close to meeting the supply, Osweiler's suitors had to assess him on seven starts in 2015. That limited sample size produced flashes of promise, highlighted by a primetime win over the New England Patriots in which Osweiler threw for 270 yards. It also produced five games when he averaged less than seven yards per pass attempt.
Osweiler was eventually benched that season in favor of an aging Peyton Manning weeks away from retirement. That didn't deter the Texans, who gambled on him and lost in the worst way. Osweiler thew 16 interceptions in 2016 while averaging just 5.8 yards per attempt. He was benched again too, this time with Tom Savage determined to be the better option.
Miami Dolphins Signing Defensive End Mario Williams
The Osweiler rule applies here too, with the Miami Dolphins signing of defensive end Mario Williams an automatic flop because he's not on the roster one year later. There's a major difference, though, and it can be found in Williams' bank account.
The Dolphins surely knew they had a potential lemon on their hands after Williams seemed to have little interest in playing football for the Buffalo Bills in 2015. The scheme fit might not have been great, but Williams' effort was worse, and he finished his final season in Buffalo with only five sacks.
The Dolphins still saw that Williams was only one year removed from 14.5 sacks in 2014. They convinced themselves a 31-year-old who's already sliding could stop his spiral. But they weren't overly confident; Williams was given a modest $11.9 million in guaranteed money.
He then continued to look ordinary and often much worse. Williams finished the 2016 season with only 1.5 sacks. He was released back in February, and now days before training camps open, a once dominant pass-rusher with four Pro Bowl appearances is still looking for a job.
New York Jets Signing Running Back Matt Forte
Go ahead and make sure you're in a seated position for this breaking news: It turns out investing any money of significance into a 30-year-old running back might be a bad idea.
I'll admit to thinking that if anyone could break through and still be productive as a 30-year-old in the backfield, Matt Forte would be the guy. He doesn't rely on pounding away as a runner and has six 400-plus-yard receiving seasons.
When he signed with the New York Jets in 2016, Forte was fresh off a season with 389 receiving yards and just one year removed from his 808 yards through the air in 2014. So the worst-case scenario would be hitting a plateau then, right? Or maybe a gradual decline? Nope.
Instead, Forte posted a career-low 263 receiving yards, and as a runner he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry.
The Jets roster has been torn down to the studs now. The only reason Forte remains on it is because his $4 million base salary for 2017 is guaranteed.
Oakland Raiders Signing Cornerback Sean Smith
Sean Smith is still a cornerback with ample size to match the physicality of the modern tank-like receiver who can streak downfield. And he still knows how to use that size too.
The Raiders' effort to install a more menacing secondary included signing Smith in 2016. His 6'3" and 220-pound frame was worth every one of the many millions Smith is set to pocket over four years.
In the first year of that contract, Smith allowed a 56.8 completion percentage in coverage, per PFF (h/t Raiders Wire). He also snatched two interceptions and recorded 11 passes defensed. When he was beaten, however, it often came in the worst way, with too many deep heaves finding their target in the end zone and Smith left only to trot off the field.
But overall Smith provided the muscle Oakland needed in 2016. And at the age of 30, he should still have a few more prime years left.
Atlanta Falcons Signing Center Alex Mack
Quarterback Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, his primary target, were getting much of the attention during their team's drive toward a Super Bowl the Atlanta Falcons should have won. They deserved it, as Ryan was rightfully named the 2016 MVP and Jones is one of the best wide receivers in this era.
But a group of large, bull-dozing blockers was only a little behind them in importance during the Falcons' season when they were crowned NFC champions. And that group was led by its long lost anchor, center Alex Mack.
Mack was the missing piece for a unit that needed a driving and steady force to power Atlanta's rushing offense forward. A consistent ground threat made the Falcons offense even more imposing. When defenses can't focus all their attention on Ryan and Jones, great things usually happen for Atlanta.
Mack finished his first season with the Falcons as PFF's third-highest-graded run-blocking center. His presence made the Falcons offense far more dynamic, with the rushing production climbing from 100.4 yards per game in 2015 (19th) to 120.5 per game in 2016 (fifth).
Just Missed the Cut
Chiefs re-signing outside linebacker Tamba Hali: It would be strange to see Hali in another jersey. Thankfully we didn't have to go through that experience after Hali re-signed with the Chiefs. At 33 he's still productive and creates consistent pressure, even if his snaps are declining as the Chiefs use him in a rotational role.
Detroit Lions signing wide receiver Marvin Jones: Jones was one of the best receivers available in a weak free-agency pool at the position. At first it looked like the Lions had a franchise-changing receiver. Jones piled up 408 receiving yards over his first three games in Detroit but then recorded only 522 yards over the next 13 games.
Jaguars signing running back Chris Ivory: Ivory re-defined what it means to be a nightmare free-agent signing at running back. The Jaguars gave him $10 million guaranteed knowing full well of Ivory's persistent injury issues (he's logged just one 16-game season over seven years in the NFL). So of course he then missed five games and averaged only 3.8 yards per carry.