The Riskiest Signings of NFL Free Agency So Far

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IMarch 17, 2018

The Riskiest Signings of NFL Free Agency So Far

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Almost everything about NFL free agency is risky. 

    The auction-style method of acquiring veteran players features a limited supply of legitimate options and heavy demand from cash-rich teams. The economics of the situation serves to drive up prices on flawed players. Teams rarely let the best players get to the open market. 

    Free agency can still be a useful roster-building tool when used smartly, but almost every new addition comes with inherent risk. And not all deals are created equally when it comes to risk. Generally, the more money spent, the more risk. 

    Here are the riskiest signings of the NFL's free-agency period so far.

       

    For the latest on the ever-changing free-agent landscape, be sure to check out Bleacher Report Free-Agent Tracker.

Honorable Mentions

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Jaguars sign G Andrew Norwell

    Norwell developed into a great player for the Carolina Panthers, but $66.5 million, with $30 million guaranteed, is a huge payday for a guard. It will be hard for Norwell to live up to that contract.

    Buccaneers re-sign TE Cameron Brate

    Brate has 14 touchdown catches the last two years, but $41 million is a lot to pay for a tight end who might soon be a No. 2 option if first-round pick O.J. Howard develops.  

    Jaguars re-sign WR Marqise Lee

    The Jaguars paid about $9 million a year for a receiver with eight touchdowns in four NFL seasons. 

    Redskins sign WR Paul Richardson

    Washington is paying Richardson $8 million per year to be the next DeSean Jackson, but he's only averaging 27.7 receiving yards per game over his first four NFL seasons. 

    Dolphins sign WR Albert Wilson

    The Dolphins traded away Jarvis Landry and then replaced him with Wilson, who agreed to sign a three-year, $24 million deal. The former Chiefs receiver, whose career high in yards is 554, needs to produce in a big way.

Vikings Sign QB Kirk Cousins

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Three years, $84 million, $84 million guaranteed 

    There are four main reasons the Vikings' decision to hand Kirk Cousins a fully guaranteed contract is the riskiest move of free agency. 

    First, he isn't a top-tier quarterback. Based solely on ability and past production, Cousins is comfortably in the top half of NFL starting quarterbacks, but there are probably 8-10 better players at the position. The number is debatable, but his placement in the second tier of quarterbacks is not. He's being paid like the best. 

    Second, he's acquiring huge expectations. The Vikings just won 13 games and advanced to the NFC Championship Game with Case Keenum–a backup behind Sam Bradford to start the 2017 season–under center. It's Super Bowl or bust in Minnesota. The Redskins never won more than nine games with Cousins during his three seasons as the starter. 

    Third, there's no realistic way out. Guaranteeing the whole contract means the Vikings are stuck with Cousins through 2020. Minnesota has no way of getting out of the situation without spiraling into salary-cap hell. 

    Fourth, the future. The Vikings have done an excellent job managing the health of their salary cap, but the team will have some big contract decisions to make on important players on defense in the near future (see: Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter, etc.). Minnesota can afford no mistakes on the cap with Cousins taking up a big chunk. 

    All that said, the risk is worth it for the Vikings, who might be a good quarterback away from winning a Super Bowl. He could simultaneously be the riskiest signing and the best signing. 

Bears Sign TE Trey Burton

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Four years, $32 million, $22 million guaranteed

    Trey Burton is the kind of player teams should want to spend on: He's young (26), ascending and likely ready for a much bigger role. In a projection business, Burton looks like a strong investment for the Bears, who needed more weapons around quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. 

    Still, this signing has obvious risks. For starters, Burton's contract will pay him like an elite tight end. In fact, it's worth a half-million less per year than Zach Ertz's deal in Philadelphia. The Bears are expecting him to produce big numbers and comparable impact. 

    It's unknown if he's capable. He played behind Ertz and Brent Celek for much of his time in Philadelphia, making just 63 catches in 61 career games. Burton finished with only 23 catches for 248 yards and five touchdowns for the Eagles in 2017, and he had just one game with over 50 yards receiving. 

    The Bears are hoping Burton keeps ascending as he takes over the No. 1 role at tight end in Chicago. But for now, he remains a big projection. 

Packers to Sign TE Jimmy Graham

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    Three years, $30 million

    Jimmy Graham is a red-zone machine (10 touchdowns in 2017), making him the perfect match for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who might just be the most ruthlessly efficient passer inside the 20-yard line in the game's long history. In that way, Graham isn't a difficult projection for the Packers; if healthy, he's a good bet for double-digit touchdowns. 

    So, where's the risk?

    Graham is 31, and his overall production numbers dipped sharply after leaving New Orleans and Drew Brees. It took forever for the Seahawks to figure out how to use him, but at this point, it's hard to imagine Graham replicating the catch and yardage totals he delivered early in his career for the Saints. 

    That wouldn't be a huge problem, but the Packers are paying Graham to be the top tight end in football. His average of $10 million per year is still the highest at the position, and his huge contract was at least a partial factor in the Packers' decision to release franchise icon Jordy Nelson. 

    The Packers are paying a big price for Graham to unlock the middle of the field and replace the red-zone production of one of the franchise's most decorated receivers. It'll be no small task for a tight end who will turn 32 in November. 

49ers Sign RB Jerick McKinnon

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Four years, $30 million, $15.7 million guaranteed

    Jerick McKinnon might be a perfect gadget running back for Kyle Shanahan's innovative and creative offense, but he's now one of the highest-paid running backs in the NFL, having signed a deal with the 49ers worth $7.5 million per year.  

    The four years and $30 million figures were initially shocking for McKinnon, who has never rushed for more than 600 yards in a season. But a closer look at the deal reveals a far less risky contract for the 49ers. 

    It's essentially a one-year deal, with teams options after 2018. The 49ers are paying McKinnon a lot of money up front, but the team isn't locked into payments after next season. 

    Really, the 49ers are investing a ton of cash into McKinnon for 2018, hoping he'll produce in Shanahan's offense and stick around for the duration of the deal. But if he doesn't, the 49ers will have wasted a good chunk of cash on a running back who has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry over the last two seasons. 

Giants Sign LT Nate Solder

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Four years, $62 million, $34.8 million guaranteed

    Teams search far and wide for quality starting left tackles. Teams that find them pay them handsomely. Teams that don't must overpay to get one. 

    In that sense, it's understandable that the Giants wrote a big check to lure Nate Solder out of New England. He'll lock down the left tackle position and give New York a piece to build around on the offensive line. 

    But the Giants paid a big price to acquire a 29-year-old left tackle who is good but far from great. Solder is now the highest-paid offensive tackle (in average annual value) in the NFL, and he has as many Pro Bowl appearances as you and I. In an era of watered-down Pro Bowl selections, that's kind of incredible. 

    Obviously, the Giants didn't love the incoming class of offensive tackles and decided to move aggressively for the top option in free agency. Still, it's unlikely that Solder will live up to the expectations of his massive new deal. 

Jets to Sign CB Trumaine Johnson

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Five years, $72.5 million, $45 million guaranteed

    Few players know how valuable the franchise tag is quite like Kirk Cousins and Trumaine Johnson, who both cashed in on huge deals after spending the last two years playing under the tag. It provided each player huge financial leverage. 

    Johnson used his to get a deal worth $14.5 million per season from the Jets, who went into free agency with the most cap room in the NFL. It was a good mix of player and team, at least financially, but Johnson is no longer a one-year rental on the tag. He's locked into one of the league's biggest defensive contracts, and the Jets will expect him to produce accordingly. 

    Johnson is a good player, and his combination of size (6'2", 213 lbs) and athletic ability is rare, but it's hard to argue that he's a difference-maker. He has just three total interceptions the last two seasons and is often inconsistent snap to snap, game to game. The Rams made little effort to bring him back, choosing instead to trade for two Pro Bowl corners. This looks like a deal that won't age well. 

Chiefs Sign WR Sammy Watkins

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Three years, $48 million, $30 million

    On paper, there's a lot to like about the Chiefs landing Sammy Watkins. He's a physically talented deep threat with No. 1 receiver ability, and he's capable of giving new quarterback Patrick Mahomes another big-play threat in the passing game. The Chiefs could be deadly on offense if all the pieces come together in 2018. 

    But Watkins has always been better on paper. 

    His injury history is frightening (just ask the Buffalo Bills), and he didn't produce big numbers in Sean McVay's offense in Los Angeles last season, catching only 39 passes for 593 yards over 15 games. He did catch eight touchdowns and average over 15 yards per catch, but the Chiefs are now paying $16 million per season for a receiver who averaged 39.5 receiving yards per game in 2017. 

    Watkins has always had tantalizing potential. Maybe he finally breaks out in a big way in Kansas City next season. But here's a simple truth: The fourth overall pick in 2014 is about to play for his third team in as many years in 2018. Watkins wouldn't be bouncing around if he wasn't constantly burdened with heavy risk. 

Bills Sign DL Star Lotulelei

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Five years, $50 million, $24.7 million guaranteed

    Star Lotulelei's agreement with the Bills reunites the former first-round pick with coach Sean McDermott, who laid the foundation for his best years in Carolina. Clearly, Buffalo believes McDermott can coax the best out of the interior run-stuffer.

    But it's hard to overlook the staggering contract numbers. $10 million per season for a block-eating run defender with little-to-no pass-rushing ability (11.5 sacks in five NFL seasons)? Unless the Bills become the best run-stopping defense in football, it's easy to see this becoming a regrettable contract, even within the first three years.

    Lotulelei is now the Bills' highest-paid player. Does anyone believe he'll provide the most impact for Buffalo in 2018 and beyond? It's going to be difficult for the Bills to get a strong return on their massive investment. 

Chiefs Sign LB Anthony Hitchens

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    Five years, $45 million, $25.1 million guaranteed

    It's pretty easy to see how this one came together: The Chiefs needed a young inside linebacker to replace Derrick Johnson, and the threat of Hitchens going to Indianapolis and reuniting with his former position coach (Matt Eberflus) in Dallas drove up his price.

    But all the way to $9 million per year? Hitchens is now one of the highest-paid off-the-ball linebackers in the NFL, but there's little evidence to suggest he's ascending into a difference-making inside linebacker. At that price, Kansas City better be getting a Pro Bowl tackle machine. 

    Maybe the Chiefs think they've found the next Johnson in Hitchens, who tallied 84 tackles in 12 games for the Cowboys last season. They better hope so, because Hitchens is now tied for the fifth-highest paid inside linebacker in the NFL (in average annual value). Nigel Bradham, who got $8 million per year to return to Philadelphia, is the better player.

Titans Sign CB Malcolm Butler

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    Five years, $61 million, $30 million guaranteed

    It's safe to say Malcolm Butler's market wasn't hurt considerably by the drama of the Super Bowl. He'll earn over $12 million per year from the Titans. 

    That's about the going rate for a young, respected cornerback on the open market. But the Titans are still taking a big risk, not only because Bill Belichick chose not to play Butler in the biggest game of the 2017 season, but also because Butler was average last year.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Butler gave up a passer rating of 103.3 against his coverage in 2017. He's also short and not incredibly fast, so Tennessee is banking on a scheme change and technique improvements helping its big-money cornerback bounce back from a forgettable contract season. 

    Butler's track record suggests he's a good, reliable player, but there are reasons to think his five-year deal could eventually bust.