Ranking the NFL's Best Early Free-Agency Moves

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMarch 13, 2019

Ranking the NFL's Best Early Free-Agency Moves

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    Free agency marks the first sign of hope for improvement during the NFL offseason. General managers may opt to strengthen weak spots on the roster with a quick fix. Established veterans can provide immediate upgrades but come at a high cost. 

    At times, it's not the big-name free agents who change their team's trajectory. Average talents on the market on modest deals may outperform the hot-ticket pickups.

    Last offseason, the Indianapolis Colts signed tight end Eric Ebron, who underachieved with the Detroit Lions. In 2018, he became one of the league's top red-zone targets with 13 touchdowns.

    As the agreements become official Wednesday, we'll rank the top 10 acquisitions based on the player's past production, roster fit, projected impact and contract details if available.

    Although teams expect to overpay for top players, it's important to spend wisely. It's logical to financially overcompensate for a quarterback but not necessarily at safety or guard. 

    Which teams opened the 2019 offseason with shrewd transactions during the legal tampering period?

        

10. Tennessee Titans Sign WR Adam Humphries

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    The Tennessee Titans came to an agreement with arguably the top slot wideout on the open market in Adam Humphries. NFL Network's Tom Pelissero and Mike Garafolo reported the four-year, $36 million pact.

    In 2018, Humphries consistently moved the chains. He tied teammate Chris Godwin and Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in first-down catches with 48. The Titans offense ranked 26th in total first downs (289) and struggled to move the ball throughout the year.

    Secondly, Tennessee needed a playmaker at wide receiver to open up the field for Corey Davis. Wideouts Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe didn't show enough consistency as threats in the passing game.

    Last season, Taylor scored one touchdown. Sharpe returned to action after a year on the sideline because of a foot injury and logged 26 receptions for 316 yards and two touchdowns. Humphries won't pose a significant threat on deep throws, but he's primed to become a strong option on crucial third downs. The 26-year-old had a catch rate above 72 percent in each of the last two terms.

9. Indianapolis Colts Sign WR Devin Funchess

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    General manager Chris Ballard acquired another big-body target for quarterback Andrew Luck. The Colts may have a short-term answer opposite wideout T.Y. Hilton in the passing attack.

    According to Pelissero, Indianapolis agreed in principle with wide receiver Devin Funchess on a one-year deal worth up to $13 million. Ballard didn't invest long-term financial resources in the 24-year-old, but the fifth-year veteran will have an opportunity to "try out" with the sixth-ranked passing attack on a prove-it contract. 

    At 6'4", 225 pounds, Funchess profiles as the ideal pass-catcher who can produce solid numbers with Luck under center. He came out of college as a tweener prospect with experience at wide receiver and tight end. 

    Funchess lined up as a wideout with the Carolina Panthers, but he's used his size for good positioning in the red zone, securing 16 of 21 touchdown receptions inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

    Looking at Luck's rapport with Ebron (6'4", 253 lbs) and tight end Jack Doyle (6'6", 262 lbs) in previous seasons, the Colts signal-caller can optimize targets who have a wide catch radius or the strength to overpower defenders.

    Funchess ranks one spot higher than Humphries because of his quarterback situation. He's more likely to flourish with a four-time Pro Bowler than a signal-caller who's often banged up or hampered because of injury.

8. Green Bay Packers Sign EDGE Za'Darius Smith

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    The Packers agreed to terms with edge-rusher Za'Darius Smith on a four-year, $66 million deal, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    Outside linebacker Nick Perry had a disappointing 2018 campaign, and the team released him Tuesday, per CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora. Meanwhile, Clay Matthews is heading into his age-33 campaign as an unrestricted free agent.

    As a result, Green Bay had to acquire some help on the edge. 

    Teams typically target second-tier pass-rushers because front offices tag star players who rack up sacks. In Smith, the Packers have an edge-rusher who's on the rise.

    Last season, Smith tallied a team-high 8.5 sacks with the Baltimore Ravens while playing 66.7 percent of the defensive snaps.

    Although Smith's resume lacks consistent production, he plays a premium position and possesses major upside. It's possible the Kentucky product could lead this defense in sacks for years to come. At 26 years old, he's just scratching the surface of his full potential.

7. Oakland Raiders Sign OT Trent Brown

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    The Oakland Raiders landed the top offensive lineman on the market. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the team made Trent Brown the highest-paid at his position with a four-year, $66 million agreement.

    At first glance, the Raiders' investment seems excessive. Brown doesn't have a Pro Bowl or All-Pro season on his resume. Last offseason, the San Francisco 49ers traded him and a fifth-round pick to the New England Patriots for a third-rounder. Now, he's set to sign the biggest contract for an offensive lineman in NFL history.

    Immediately, critics drew comparisons to the New York Giants, who signed former Patriots left tackle Nate Solder to a massive four-year, $62 million deal last year. The Raiders constructed a front-loaded deal that allows the team to release Brown after the 2020 term without owing him any dead money, per Spotrac.

    Oakland had a need at offensive tackle, as Kolton Miller and Brandon Parker were overwhelmed on the perimeter last year. The former dealt with a knee injury during the season but didn't have the mass to stand his ground against power pass-rushers.

    Brown stands at 6'8" and 380 pounds. As a pass protector, he maintains a firm base like a tree rooted in the ground. As a starter at left tackle with the Patriots last year, he allowed only 3.5 sacks, per STATS (via the Washington Post).

    General manager Mike Mayock and head coach Jon Gruden can't afford to watch quarterback Derek Carr take another season-long beating behind a porous offensive line. Brown should alleviate the pocket pressure. If he falters, the Raiders can resort to the contractual out.

    Brown can play left and right tackle, which allows flexibility with the personnel grouping. Regardless of where he lines up, it's an upgrade for an offensive line that struggled to protect Carr in 2018.

6. Green Bay Packers Sign EDGE Preston Smith

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    The Packers doubled down on edge-rushers Tuesday. Shortly after coming to terms with Za'Darius Smith, the front office also agreed upon a deal with Preston Smith, per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky.

    Under former general manager Ted Thompson, Green Bay approached free agency like an afterthought. Two years removed from that regime, it's refreshing to see the front office thoroughly address roster needs with reasonable acquisitions.

    In 2018, Smith's sack total dropped, but it's not because he lost a step. The Washington Redskins' coaching staff added to his coverage duties. Frustrated with the commentary about his lukewarm pocket pressure, the 26-year-old spoke about the matter with Jake Kring-Schreifels of the Redskins' site during the season.

    "I think it's unfair that people only think about sacks for my position," Smith said. "I get pissed off about not getting sacks, but it's also, I drop in coverage a lot too. My responsibilities are more than just rushing the quarterback."

    Smith recorded 30 solo tackles, four sacks, three pass breakups and one interception last year. He's accumulated 104 solo tackles and 24.5 sacks through four seasons in Washington as a solid pass-rusher who can also stop the run.

    Although he's able to handle coverage assignments, the Packers will likely focus on his ability to reach the quarterback. It's a logical expectation after the team released Nick Perry on Tuesday. Preston Smith has shown more consistency in that area than Za'Darius Smith as a starter, which elevates his rank a little higher on this list.

5. New York Jets Sign LB C.J. Mosley

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    The Jets struck early Tuesday, coming to terms with linebacker C.J. Mosley on a five-year, $85 million deal, per Rapoport.

    Mosley lined up at inside linebacker for five seasons with the Ravens. He'll do the same with the Jets alongside Avery Williamson. Together, the pair should strengthen the defense's run support. 

    It's no surprise Gang Green took an aggressive approach to solidify the middle of the defense. As a play-caller and interim head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Williams had a closeup on Mosley twice a year. 

    Now, with the four-time Pro Bowler in tow, the Jets may part ways with inside linebacker Darron Lee, per the New York Daily NewsManish Mehta. "The Daily News has learned that the Jets are positioning to upgrade at linebacker in free agency with the hope of ultimately moving on from Lee," he wrote. 

    The Jets landed a major upgrade with Mosley able to play on all three downs. He's not a high-end coverage defender but good enough to handle short-area duties in pass defense.

4. Kansas City Chiefs Sign S Tyrann Mathieu

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    The Kansas City Chiefs broke the bank for another safety. This time, Tyrann Mathieu agreed to a deal that will push him above Eric Berry in annual pay scale. Per Rapoport, the 26-year-old agreed to a three-year, $42 million deal.

    The Chiefs pass defense ranked 31st in yards allowed, and Berry played three regular-season contests over the last two years. Those two reasons alone justify a move to acquire a versatile defensive back for the secondary.

    The organization parted ways with defensive coordinator Bob Sutton as the maestro of disappointment on that side of the ball. Now, general manager Brett Veach must do his part to provide new play-caller Steve Spagnuolo with assets. 

    Kansas City will pay a high price for Mathieu, but he can line up in both safety spots and in the slot cornerback position. More importantly, the seventh-year veteran is constantly around the football, logging 13 interceptions and 49 pass breakups through his career. In 2018, he flashed in the backfield with three sacks. 

    The Chiefs made a high-level investment in a potential chess piece that can transform the defense.

3. Detroit Lions Sign DE Trey Flowers

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    The Detroit Lions agreed to sign multiple ex-Patriots players, but defensive end Trey Flowers stands out as the most valuable pickup. According to Rapoport, team brass came to terms on a five-year deal worth $90 million, with $56 million guaranteed.

    Unlike the moves listed above, there's a direct correlation between the head coach or play-caller and the player. Lions head coach Matt Patricia served as the Patriots defensive coordinator between the 2012 and 2017 terms. Under his tutelage, Flowers produced 13.5 sacks in two seasons.

    The Lions shouldn't have any concerns about Flowers' fit within the scheme. He'll join the team with prior knowledge of Patricia's play designs and should be able to execute the game plans.

    As an ascending playmaker at a premium position, Flowers carries potential immediate and long-term impact as a pass-rusher. Assuming Ezekiel Ansah signs elsewhere, the 25-year-old addresses a void at defensive end with room to develop into a Pro Bowl talent.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars Sign QB Nick Foles

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    The Jacksonville Jaguars may have a long-term solution at quarterback—the most important position in the NFL. A competent signal-caller and backup-level passer could mean the difference between a playoff squad and a top-10 spot in the draft order. There's a reason this team has the No. 7 overall pick.

    Fortunately for the Jaguars, the Eagles declined the option on Nick Foles' contract, and he became a free agent. It's rare to see starting-caliber quarterbacks hit the open market, especially one with Super Bowl experience.

    Perhaps the connection between offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and Foles paved the way for a smooth transaction. Jacksonville agreed to terms with the 30-year-old signal-caller on a four-year, $88 million pact, per the MMQB's Albert Breer. This move could catapult the Jaguars back into playoff contention.

    In 2018, Jacksonville fielded a stingy defense that ranked fourth in scoring and only lost defensive tackle Malik Jackson and safety Tashaun Gipson as cap-space casualties. Foles' familiarity with DeFilippo, his former quarterbacks coach from Philadelphia, should help ease his transition.

    Jacksonville acquired a top talent at a make-or-break position. Foles' potential impact under center elevates this signing to the No. 2 spot.

1. New York Jets Sign RB Le'Veon Bell

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    After a long wait, running back Le'Veon Bell finally made a decision early Wednesday. According to Schefter, he intends to a sign a four-year, $52.5 million contract with the New York Jets. 

    Bell's deal falls short of his reported $17-plus million annual asking price, per Rapoport. It's a win for the Jets, who didn't have to reset the running back market for their ideal free agent.

    Although Bell sat out the entire 2018 campaign, the two-time first-team All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler is perhaps the most accomplished free-agent acquisition yet. In a workhorse tailback role, the 27-year-old led the league in touches (406) in 2017.

    In Bell, general manager Mike Maccagnan landed the ultimate offensive asset for quarterback Sam Darnold. The versatile running back has averaged 19.8 rush attempts and 5.0 receptions per contest over the course of his career. He'll immediately become the top playmaker in the Jets offense.

    Following a year off, expect the Jets coaching staff to lean heavily on Bell. He's well-compensated—projected second among running backs in annual salary—and on fresh legs.

    The Jets have to do more than win free agency to contend in 2019, but the offense should improve with a do-it-all tailback in the backfield.

        

    Position salary details provided by Spotrac.