Ranking the Top 10 Contracts Given out in NFL Free Agency This Year
Pictured above is a man named Chris Ballard. Chris is the general manager of the Indianapolis Colts. And I owe Chris an apology.
See, NFL free agency is complicated and it doesn't really have an end date. Thus, it's tricky to draw conclusions on the fly. Just a few days ago, when Ballard seemingly inexplicably hadn't filled a hole at safety and was hiding from the free-agent market despite owning more salary-cap space than anyone else in the NFL, I handed Ballard's Colts a D grade for their performance on the open market.
But then Ballard finally brought back starting 2018 safety Clayton Geathers. And not long after that, he signed a game-changing player to one of the team-friendliest deals of the 2019 offseason.
It's too late to change that grade from the first week of free agency, but they don't award Lombardi trophies based on free agency report cards. And besides, it's entirely possible (albeit extremely unlikely) that my harsh criticism pushed Ballard to finally act. For that, Colts fans are welcome to thank me on Twitter.
In any event, we've suddenly got plenty of praise for Ballard's front office. We reviewed the terms of every free-agent contract signed this month and identified 10 that—based on the signed player's resume, career trajectory, and value compared to his peers—represented particularly good value to the teams that handed them out.
Turns out two of Ballard's contracts made the list. Here they are, along with eight other general-managerial works of art.
10. Indianapolis Colts Re-Sign CB Pierre Desir
Terms: Three years, $22.5 million ($12 million guaranteed)
A big reason the Indianapolis Colts defense blew away all expectations in 2018? Cornerback Pierre Desir.
After struggling to find a groove while jumping from defense to defense during the first four years of his career, the 28-year-old came into his own and excelled in new Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus' zone-oriented scheme.
But what's most encouraging is that Desir got hot late in his breakout season and was one of the best players on the field when Indianapolis beat the Houston Texans on the road in the opening round of the playoffs.
Because he's not a prototypical outside, press-man corner, Desir was never going to command a contract worth $12-15 million per year. But a $7.5 million average annual salary puts him behind several less-effective corners such as Dre Kirkpatrick, Jimmy Smith, Bradley Roby, T.J. Carrie and Robert Alford, all of whom take more penalties and aren't as versatile.
Desir isn't even one of the 25 highest-paid players at his position, but the Colts will now retain his services for the three seasons that should cover the heart of his prime.
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sign OLB Shaquil Barrett
Terms: One year, $4 million ($3 million guaranteed)
One day after he was identified by yours truly as a hidden gem lingering on the open market, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were lucky enough to land highly skilled pass-rusher Shaquil Barrett for just $4 million on a one-year prove-it deal.
Barrett's role was limited in Denver, but the five-year veteran flashed just often enough to make you wonder if he could flourish in the right environment. He was stuck behind Von Miller and Bradley Chubb in 2018, but he should have plenty of opportunities under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles in 2019. And it won't be surprising if Shaquil explodes onto the scene in Tampa Bay.
"Barrett has had a pass-rushing grade above 70.0 in every season of his career," PFF's Michael Renner wrote last month, "despite often limited playing time."
Even if he's merely serviceable for the Bucs, Barrett's salary is a pittance for a pass-rusher in 2019. In fact, a ridiculous 67 edge-defenders earn higher average annual salaries than his.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars Sign QB Nick Foles
Terms: Four years, $88 million ($50.1 million guaranteed)
Yes, Nick Foles was the highest-paid free agent of the 2019 offseason. And no, I'm not convinced Foles—who has lacked consistency throughout his career—can become a successful franchise quarterback for years to come.
And yet because he's a quarterback who has and can do big things, and because the quarterback premium has skyrocketed of late, the Jacksonville Jaguars actually got a favorably low price for the 30-year-old's services.
We're still talking about a Super Bowl MVP who has has been to a Pro Bowl and has the third-highest-rated QB season in NFL history on his resume (when he boasted a 119.2 rating in 2013). Brock Osweiler didn't have credentials in that stratosphere when the Houston Texans gave him a deal with an average annual value of $18 million three years ago, and Kirk Cousins wasn't any more accomplished when he earned a fully-guaranteed $28 million per year from the Minnesota Vikings last offseason.
The Jaguars might have caught a break, though, because with so many teams settled under center there might not have been any serious suitors for Foles outside of northeast Florida.
As a result, a decorated quarterback in his prime is making less than the likes of Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matthew Stafford, Derek Carr and Joe Flacco.
7. Carolina Panthers Re-Sign OT Daryl Williams
Terms: One year, $6 million ($3 million guaranteed)
During a breakout 2017 season at right tackle, 2015 fourth-round pick Daryl Williams probably should have been a Pro Bowler. Not only did Williams dominate as a pass-blocker, he also showed off versatility and discipline.
And, as that was his first full season as an NFL starter, there was plenty of excitement surrounding him before he suffered a training camp knee injury that derailed his 2018 campaign.
But because Williams barely saw the field last season, the Panthers were able to bring the 26-year-old back on a cheap, prove-it deal worth only $6 million for the 2019 season.
Even with the injury in mind, it's shocking nobody was willing to pay a higher price for one of the league's most talented young players at a critical position. Besides, by the time the 2019 season gets underway, 13 months will have passed since Williams suffered his injury.
There may be concerns he's a one-hit wonder, but his tape from 2017 doesn't leave that impression. No way Williams should only be the 35th-highest-paid offensive tackle in the NFL.
6. Green Bay Packers Sign S Adrian Amos
Terms: Four years, $36 million ($12 million guaranteed)
Landon Collins struggles badly in coverage. He signed a deal worth $14 million a year. Earl Thomas is about to turn 30 and recovering from his second major injury in a three-season span. He signed a deal worth $13.8 million a year. Tyrann Mathieu hasn't been the same since tearing his ACL late in his last great season way back in 2015. He also got $14 million a year on the open market.
So how is it that emerging 25-year-old coverage whiz Adrian Amos landed only $9 million a year on a four-year contract with the Green Bay Packers?
The deal is a hell of a coup for Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, who landed a guy Pro Football Focus calls "one of the most consistent safeties in the NFL" at a more favorable rate than other, arguably lesser 2019 free agents like Kwon Alexander (injured), Tyrell Williams (inconsistent), Rodger Saffold (significantly older), Malik Jackson (probably declining), Bradley Roby (coming off a bad season in coverage), Devin Funchess (also inconsistent), Jamison Crowder (ditto) and Golden Tate (limited playmaking ability on the wrong side of 30).
Look for the steady Amos—who ranked in the top 10 in coverage at his position the last two years at PFF—to take his game to another level in Green Bay, where he should perform like a top-tier safety in exchange for second-tier money.
5. Denver Broncos Sign CB Bryce Callahan
Terms: Three years, $21 million ($10 million guaranteed)
While Julian Edelman's Super Bowl LIII MVP performance is the latest piece of evidence that the slot receiver position is gaining value, so too is the slot cornerback. These days, those in charge of covering the slot are basically starters and, in many cases, crucial ones.
And while slot receivers (like Adam Humphries) can sometimes still be had at surprisingly fair rates, that seemingly also applies to slot corners.
There's no other explanation for why lesser corners like Bradley Roby, Steven Nelson and Robert Alford (all of whom were frequently annihilated in coverage last season) signed deals this month with higher average annual values than the one Bryce Callahan got from the Denver Broncos.
The 27-year-old has been one of the best slot corners in the league the last two seasons, but his three-year, $21 million deal with the Broncos makes him only the 30th-highest-paid cornerback in football. And strangely, he's even taken a back seat to less accomplished inside corners like Justin Coleman and Aaron Colvin.
It's incredible considering that Callahan wasn't penalized all season while ranking 11th in coverage among 131 qualified corners at PFF.
Maybe the foot injury that sidelined the rising corner late in the 2018 season cost him some money on the open market, but there's a good chance the Broncos are rewarded for taking that small risk at a reasonable price.
4. Tennessee Titans Sign WR Adam Humphries
Terms: Four years, $36 million ($19 million guaranteed)
Adam Humphries is a stock on the rise. The wide receiver improved steadily throughout his four-year, career-opening run with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he's got a high ceiling at a slot position that continues to gain importance.
Humphries is just 25 years old and coming off a season that featured a career-high five touchdowns in a crowded offense.
Among 48 receivers who have been targeted at least 150 times since the start of 2017, Humphries ranks second (behind only All-Pro Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints) with a catch rate of 72.9 percent. And that's despite the fact that the Bucs' team passer rating during that span is nearly 16 points lower than that of New Orleans.
That security is just what the doctor ordered for Marcus Mariota, and it'll cost the Tennessee Titans only $9 million per year. It would be hard to argue that the inconsistent Jamison Crowder is close to as valuable as him, but he and three other receivers signed more lucrative deals than Humphries this offseason.
Considering his upside and his reliability, it's a crime that 24 NFL receivers possess contracts with higher average annual values than Humphries. Huge steal for Tennessee.
3. Los Angeles Rams Sign QB Blake Bortles
Terms: One year, $1 million ($1 million guaranteed)
NFL teams are realizing how valuable it is to have a capable backup quarterback. And the shifting supply-and-demand dynamics at that position, along with a skyrocketing salary cap, have enabled some organizations to pay up for insurance under center.
In other words, you no longer have to be viewed as a starter to make good money. Just ask Teddy Bridgewater ($7.3 million a year), Tyrod Taylor ($5.5 million a year), Chase Daniel ($5 million a year) or Chad Henne ($3.4 million a year).
An argument could be made that Blake Bortles is as capable as any of those guys: The guy nearly helped the Jags get to the Super Bowl during an impressive playoff run in 2017. He doesn't deserve a starting job at this point, but, as a 26-year-old with over 100 touchdown passes in five NFL seasons, he's worth a hell of a lot more than the $1 million he'll get from the Los Angeles Rams in 2019.
Before you cry Bortles a river, it should be noted that Jacksonville will still owe Bortles $6.5 million minus the $1 million offset created by his deal with the Rams. But still, what a bargain for Los Angeles.
Having a passer (and runner) like Bortles on the sideline could save the Rams' season in the event of a short-term emergency, and yet 52 quarterbacks are scheduled to cost their teams more than he will in 2019.
For the sake of comparison, Blake will cost the Rams the same amount of cash that long snapper Casey Kreiter will cost the Broncos next season. Come on!
2. Indianapolis Colts Sign DE Justin Houston
Terms: Two years, $24 million (guaranteed money not yet reported)
It sometimes pays to wait out the market, and that was the case when the Indianapolis Colts took their time before signing one of the best pass-rushers available more than a week after the start of free agency.
Justin Houston might no longer be the player he was in his prime, but he only just turned 30 in January and the four-time Pro Bowler has the talent and experience to make a gigantic impact in a situational role for years to come.
It's not as though he wasn't still effective late in his tenure with the Kansas City Chiefs. Houston still has 18.5 sacks in 27 games over the last two seasons, and his PFF win rate of 19.3 percent ranked fifth among NFL edge-rushers.
Houston was simply caught up in a numbers game in Kansas City, with his age and recent injury history causing him to fall through some cracks after a pre-free-agency release. Per PFF's Michael Renner, he actually had a higher pass-rushing grade in 2018 than the highly-touted Trey Flowers, who landed a five-year, $90 million deal with the Detroit Lions.
While Flowers will make $18 million a year, Dee Ford will make $17.1 million a year and Za'Darius Smith will make $16.5 million a year, the Colts are on the hook for just $12 million annually with Houston, who in no world should be making less money than Robert Quinn, Carlos Dunlap, Brandon Graham and Preston Smith, all of whom are either inconsistent or can't close (or both).
1. Los Angeles Rams Sign S Eric Weddle
Terms: Two years, $10.5 million ($6.3 million guaranteed)
Maybe it's because he just as easily could have retired and simply wanted to join a contender. Maybe it's because he knew he was getting $1.8 million in dead money from the Baltimore Ravens anyway. Or maybe it's because the free-agent safety market was crowded and he's seen his best days at the age of 34.
Regardless, new Los Angeles Rams safety Eric Weddle is worth more than $5.3 million a year.
The selfless leader and two-time first-team All-Pro didn't miss a single game during a three-year run with the Ravens, making three Pro Bowls in as many seasons. He's just a year removed from a six-interception campaign, and according to Pro Football Focus, he missed just five tackles and surrendered a mere 111 yards in his coverage all season.
Safeties often have long shelf lives, and Weddle appears to be far from done. As PFF's Michael Renner notes, "his 80.7 overall grade this past season still puts the 34-year old on par with the safeties getting triple his deal in free agency."
Seriously. I'd take Weddle right now over the $12-million-a-year Reshad Jones without hesitating, and there's no way he's inferior to Tashaun Gipson, Rodney McLeod, Ricardo Allen, Jaquiski Tartt, T.J. McDonald or Kenny Vaccaro, all of whom are making more money.