The Riskiest Signings of NFL Free Agency so Far

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IMarch 13, 2019

The Riskiest Signings of NFL Free Agency so Far

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    The opening days of the free-agency legal tampering period are often the riskiest ones in the NFL.

    Teams are flush with spending money and stuck fighting over a limited number of good players, creating bidding wars that produce huge, multiyear salaries jam-packed with guarantees. It's a costly and dangerous way of acquiring talent.

    Not all contracts agreed upon early are inherently risky. However, the deals that involve giving big financial commitments to questionably talented players often create major, cap-crippling regrets down the road. Massive new deals for good-but-not-great players also arrive with significant risk.

    If you're expecting to find Nick Foles, don't bother. He wasn't necessarily cheap, but his new deal with the Jaguars was right in line with paying an above-average quarterback, and he's still a Super Bowl MVP who played well to end last season, too. He's also reuniting with John DeFilippo, and he'll be replacing Blake Bortles, so he's a major and instant upgrade in Jacksonville.

    You also won't find Le'Veon Bell, an elite talent at running back who gives Jets quarterback Sam Darnold a dual-threat weapon to start his second season in New York. His deal was right in line with those of other elite runners.

    Here's a look at the riskiest signings from the first part of free agency.

LB Kwon Alexander, San Francisco 49ers

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    Deal: Four years, $54 million ($27 million guaranteed), according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    The 49ers must believe they are getting an elite, game-changing middle linebacker in Alexander. In reality, they are giving $13.5 million per year to an average defender with red flags, creating the perfect cocktail for a risky signing.

    Alexander has missed 18 games to injury/suspension during his first four seasons. He tore his ACL in October and missed the final 10 games last season. He's also a below-average run-stopper and a demonstrably poor tackler. According to Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus, Alexander has missed 78 tackles since entering the NFL, making him one of only nine players with 50 or more misses since 2015.

    How is an undersized linebacker (6'1", 227 lbs) who struggles to tackle and has missed four or more games in three of his first four seasons worth $54 million, especially coming back from a major injury?

    The deal appears to be more team-friendly than originally believed, with most of the guaranteed money in the first year. That could leave general manager John Lynch with a few outs after 2019.

    Still, the 49ers are paying Alexander to be one of the two or three best off-ball linebackers in the NFL, even though nothing about his first four seasons points to a budding superstar. Everything about this deal suggests the 49ers will seek to eliminate it in one or two years.

OT Trent Brown, Oakland Raiders

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    Deal: Four years, $66 million ($36.75 million guaranteed), according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    About 11 months ago, Brown was traded from San Francisco to New England for peanuts. Now he's the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history.

    Turns out, excelling at left tackle for Tom Brady and winning a Super Bowl with the Patriots is good for business. Give credit to Brown, who turned his career around and cashed in big time, thanks largely to a dominant stretch to end last season's championship run. But the risk for the Raiders is enormous.

    Pro Football Focus rated Brown as the 32nd-best offensive tackle in the NFL last season, and that was with Brady getting the ball out of his hands fast in a quick-fire passing game. Brown is also going from Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia to Raiders offensive line coach Tom Cable, polar opposites of the profession. How much of Brown's success was due to the Patriots' offensive scheme and the coaching genius of Scarnecchia?

    The Raiders are about to find out.

    Last year, the Giants paid big for former Patriots left tackle Nate Solder and now likely regret it. The Raiders might join that pity party by this time next year.

OT Bobby Hart, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Deal: Three years, $21 million (or more), according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    Woof. This deal isn't only risky, it's just plain bad.

    Hart, a seventh-round pick of the Giants in 2015, was a disaster in New York for three seasons and mostly a disaster for the Bengals in 2018. Just last season, he committed 14 penalties (including nine false starts) and allowed 10 sacks over 16 games, according to Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

    Not much more needs to be said. Essentially, the Bengals are committing to Hart as the starter at right tackle and paying him to be a top-end starter at the position, even though all available evidence suggests he's replacement-level or worse.

    Offensive tackles are increasingly hard to come by in the NFL, but the Bengals are paying good money to repeat a mistake and stagnate at an important position. Pass-rushers in the AFC North are probably pleased.

S Landon Collins, Washington Redskins

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    Deal: Six years, $84 million ($45 million guaranteed), according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    Obviously, much of the risk here involves the money. The Redskins paid Collins a small fortune to leave New York and join a division rival. He'll now be the highest-paid safety in NFL history by average salary.

    It's hard to predict if the investment will pay off. Collins was, at the height of his powers, a terrific all-around disruptor, but he's fallen back to earth the last two seasons, especially once the Giants gave him more coverage responsibilities.

    The Redskins need to have a specific plan for maximizing Collins' ability. He's been at his best when playing near the line of scrimmage, filling gaps to stop the run and covering players in the short-to-intermediate ranges. Washington should really consider him a hybrid linebacker/safety.

    But is that kind of player worth $14 million per year in today's NFL? Collins isn't going to range sideline-to-sideline as a single-high safety. He's not going to drop down and cover slot receivers one-on-one. He's limited in a sense, and that's a problem in an era of passing highlighted by creating mismatches all over the field.

    The Redskins added a good player in Collins, but the exorbitant cost—and the limitations of the player—create big-time bust potential.

OLB Za'Darius Smith, Green Bay Packers

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Deal: Four years, $66 million ($20 million signing bonus), according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    The Packers are betting on Smith, who was mostly a rotational player for the Ravens, to light up the pass rush as a difference-making player for Mike Pettine's defense. It's a big gamble, even if Smith broke out last season with 8.5 sacks.

    If Smith continues ascending and blossoms in Pettine's defense, the Packers will look like geniuses. If not, and Smith's contract year was a fluke, the Packers will have an expensive, middle-of-the-road rusher on the books for the foreseeable future.

    The bright side is that Smith looks like a terrific fit with Pettine, who values versatile rushers capable of disrupting from the inside. But it's still a risk for the Packers, who can't afford a misstep in the pass-rushing rebuild.

LB C.J. Mosley, New York Jets

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Deal: Five years, $85 million ($51 million guaranteed), according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    The problem here isn't with Mosley, who is a four-time Pro Bowler and a three-down linebacker. He's great. The problem is paying him $17 million per year, a massive amount and the most ever for an off-ball linebacker. There's a low chance Mosley is going to live up to the financial commitment of the deal, even if he's terrific in New York.

    Mosley is now the seventh-highest-paid defensive player in the NFL by average salary, trailing four undeniably elite talents (Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Fletcher Cox) and two players on the franchise tag (Demarcus Lawrence, Frank Clark). Those six all provide constant disruption in the backfield from premium positions.

    Mosley's deal is a market-changing moment at inside linebacker. It shattered the previous high for average per year (Luke Kuechly, $12.36 million). But it'll also look like an overpay if Mosley doesn't come in and immediately turn the Jets defense around.

LB Jordan Hicks, Arizona Cardinals

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    Deal: Four years, $36 million ($20 million guaranteed), according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    Hicks has been a playmaking inside linebacker during his first four seasons, but the Cardinals are paying $9 million per year and a $12 million signing bonus to a player who has missed 21 games to injury during his first four seasons.

    Only once has Hicks played all 16 games in a season. Otherwise, he missed eight games as a rookie, nine in 2017 and four last season. His past injuries include a torn pectoral and a ruptured Achilles.

    Hicks is still young (26), and his career numbers suggest a player capable of affecting opposing offenses as both a run defender and coverage linebacker. Still, talent is wasted when it's on the sideline, and the Cardinals are paying a lot of money to a player with serious availability problems.

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