Re-Grading Biggest Free-Agent NFL Moves from the 2019 Offseason
It's time to start earning those fat new paychecks.
The NFL players who switched teams and signed lucrative free-agent contracts this offseason won't cash any game checks until September. But the dawn of training camps offers those players their first chance to strap on the pads for their new clubs and get after it.
A ton of cash changed hands in free agency this offseason. The top 10 deals alone contained well over a half-billion dollars in total value.
Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox and Derrik Klassen graded the biggest free-agency moves when they happened, but much has changed since then. Other players signed. The draft took place. And we have a much better idea how those pieces fit in their new homes.
With that in mind, let's look back at the 10 biggest contracts awarded in 2019 and grade them again with the benefit of hindsight.
Where will Matt Miller and the Stick to Football crew be heading this fall? What is the 2019 outlook for each team in the NFC West? All that and more on the latest edition of Stick to Football.
OLB Preston Smith, Green Bay Packers
Contract terms: Four years, $52 million, $16 million guaranteed
Knox's grade: B
This is the first of two Green Bay signings featured here. Both include edge-rushers with the last name Smith.
It isn't that surprising that the lower-priced of the pair gets the better grade.
Of course, $13 million per season isn't chicken feed. That's what 26-year-old Preston Smith got from the Packers over four years to join Za'Darius Smith in Green Bay's new-look pass-rushing unit. Preston Smith told Rob Reischel of Forbes he plans to show he is worth every penny.
"I feel like I have a great combination of speed and length and power, so I can mix my game up," Smith said. "I can beat you around the edge with speed, I can power through you, I've got inside moves. ... And I feel like I have a lot of different moves to go out there and be effective."
Smith was relatively quiet last year in Washington, managing only four sacks. But the fifth-year pro has twice tallied eight sacks in a season, and he did manage a career-best 53 stops in 2018.
Throw in a relatively low amount of guaranteed money and an "out" after two years, and this contract makes more financial sense than the one we'll get to in a bit.
RB Le'Veon Bell, New York Jets
Contract terms: Four years, $52.5 million, $27 million guaranteed
Klassen's grade: B+
This isn't the last time you'll see the New York Jets listed here. Gang Green shelled out a ton of money in the offseason to upgrade both sides of the ball.
The crown jewel of the offensive acquisitions was tailback Le'Veon Bell, who got the big payday he sought in Pittsburgh after he sat out all of the 2018 season.
It's been quite the year for Bell, who was the subject of all sorts of rumors regarding everything from his weight to his work ethic. As Michael David Smith reported for Pro Football Talk, Bell indicated on Instagram that he has just about had it with the rumors and criticism:
"I'm tired of social media (expletive), I'm tired everybody telling me, 'Oh, Le'Veon, you not focused. You only wanna make music. You wanna play basketball. You do everything besides play football.' Let me tell you all something. I know you've got a favorite person, a favorite athlete, your mom, your dad, whatever. Somebody works at Target. You think when they work from 9 to 5, they go home and all they're worried about is putting (expletive) on the shelves? You think Bron is waking up, and he ain't have no Taco Tuesdays? Bron don't have Taco Tuesdays, you think he's hoopin' all day? You think Beyoncé is waking up singing all day? She don't go to work, she don't act? She don't do nothing else with her kids? She's waking up singing?"
When he's healthy and on his game, Bell is as good as any back in the NFL. But he also hasn't played since 2017. Giving him $27 million in guaranteed money is risky.
And between the firing of general manager Mike Maccagnan and head coach Adam Gase's lukewarm endorsement of Bell's contract, it's fair to wonder if the Jets expect this situation to work out.
ILB Kwon Alexander, San Francisco 49ers
Contract terms: Four years, $54 million, $25.5 million guaranteed
Knox's grade: C
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more aggressive team in free agency than the San Francisco 49ers have been over the past few seasons. General manager John Lynch hasn't been shy about handing out big contracts.
Doing so with inside linebacker Kwon Alexander is an awfully risky play, though.
Alexander is a talented, young off-ball linebacker. In 2016, he led the league with 108 solo stops.
But staying on the field has been an issue for the 24-year-old.
Over his four NFL seasons, Alexander has played in more than 12 games once—that 2016 season. In 2017, a hamstring injury cost him four games. Last year, he tore his ACL six games into the season.
That knee injury has prevented Alexander from participating much in minicamp and OTAs, and his status for the beginning of camp is in question.
At $13.5 million per season and with half of the contract guaranteed, the 49ers essentially paid Alexander like he didn't have a fairly extensive injury history for a player his age.
With Alexander still not close to 100 percent, this whopper of a contract isn't looking any better now than when it was originally signed.
In fact, you can easily argue that it looks worse.
FS Earl Thomas, Baltimore Ravens
Contract terms: Four years, $55 million, $32 million guaranteed
Klassen's grade: A+
When healthy, Earl Thomas isn't just one of the best safeties in the league. The six-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro is one of the best safeties of his generation.
As Aaron Kasinitz of PennLive reported, Baltimore Ravens safety Tony Jefferson thinks he and Thomas can become a formidable duo at the back of the defense:
"We have two safeties back there who like to read and react. Earl has obviously been one of the best in the game for a very long time, which he still is, and his instincts, I believe, are some of the best I've seen, being on the field with someone. We're going to use that to the best of our abilities, to the best of the defense's ability, and continue to grow. We're just going to continue to build chemistry, continue to grow.”
It's that "when he's healthy" part that could be the rub.
In Thomas' first six seasons, he didn't miss a game. Over the past three years, he's sat out 19, including 12 last year with a broken leg.
After losing their top two edge-rushers and best inside linebacker in free agency, the Ravens were desperate to add a defensive playmaker. That desperation shows in the deal Thomas got. But if the 30-year-old can stay healthy and recapture his past form, he could be a difference-maker.
The difference in grade here is a variance of opinion regarding whether that will happen.
OT Trent Brown, Oakland Raiders
Contract terms: Four years, $66 million, $36.25 million guaranteed
Knox's grade: B-
The Oakland Raiders were aggressive in adding talent in Jon Gruden's second season in charge, whether it was via trade or in free agency.
The highlight in the latter regard was the addition of improved protection for quarterback Derek Carr. After a single season playing left tackle in New England—which got him a Super Bowl ring—Brown hit the jackpot as the top free-agent tackle available, landing more than $35 million in guaranteed coin.
When he originally signed, the presumption was that the 6'8", 335-pound tackle would man Carr's blind side in Oakland. But Brown will instead kick back to right tackle with the Raiders—the position he played earlier in his career with the San Francisco 49ers.
Per Scott Bair of NBC Sports Bay Area, Brown said he's fine with the switch.
"I knew they were going to put me where they needed me," Brown said.
The reality of free agency is that tackles are routinely overpaid. It's a seller's market. And while Brown's level of play improved in the postseason last year, he's been better as a right tackle than on the left side. Brown also offers a measure of insurance if youngster Kolton Miller struggles in 2019.
But $16.5 million is an awful lot to pay a right tackle. Even a great one.
EDGE Za'Darius Smith, Green Bay Packers
Contract terms: Four years, $66 million, $20 million guaranteed
Knox's grade: B
The Green Bay Packers have long been in the market for an edge-rushing upgrade. They went hard at the position in free agency, shelling out well over $100 million to add Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith.
While speaking with Rob Reischel of Forbes, Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine lauded the former's ability to rush the passer from different spots.
"Za'Darius is more of a power-type rusher and also has the flexibility; you can move him around," Pettine said. "If you looked at how the Ravens used him, it will be very similar. He can go down and rush over a guard, he can rush over a center."
There's a fair amount of risk involved in giving a big contract to an edge-rusher who's coming off a career year. After all, in Smith's first three NFL seasons, he had 10 sacks. He had 8.5 in 2018 alone. The cap hit for each of the last two years of his deal is also upward of $20 million.
Former Ravens pass-rushers who have signed big contracts in free agency also have a spotty history in recent years, whether it's Pernell McPhee in Chicago or Paul Kruger in Cleveland.
Giving Preston Smith help on the other side was wise. Whether the same can be said for that average annual salary is another matter.
SS Landon Collins, Washington Redskins
Contract terms: Six years, $84 million, $44.5 million guaranteed
Knox's grade: C-
That the New York Giants didn't assign the franchise tag to star safety Landon Collins was surprising. That the rival Redskins lured him away with a staggering six-year, $84 million contract was that much more so.
As ESPN's Bill Barnwell wrote, Washington can get out of the deal after three years, but this was still a knee-knocker of a deal for a safety:
"Collins is only guaranteed $26 million [at signing], but the structure of this deal makes it extremely likely that he will take home that full $45 million figure over three years. (The only way Washington could get away with paying Collins $26 million would be if they cut him after one year, at which point Daniel Snyder & Co. would owe $22 million in dead money.)"
In fairness, Collins is arguably the game's best box safety, and he's just entering his prime at the age of 25. He has three 100-tackle seasons, including a 100-solo campaign in 2016.
Sticking it to a division rival is a nice bonus.
But paying a safety—any safety—roughly $14 million more per season blurs the line between being aggressive and overpaying.
Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu undoubtedly appreciated it, though. Collins' contract reset the market on the back end and helped lead to their big paydays.
ILB C.J. Mosley, New York Jets
Contract terms: Five years, $85 million, $51 million guaranteed
Knox's grade: D+
In five NFL seasons, C.J. Mosley has become one of the game's better young inside linebackers. The 27-year-old has topped 100 tackles four times and been named to an equal number of Pro Bowls, including each of the last three seasons.
Per Ethan Greenberg of the team's website, Mosley's wasted no time in impressing linebackers coach Frank Bush.
"We're excited about where he can take us and the things he can do from a leadership standpoint, but as far as him on the field, the sky is the limit for the kid," Bush said. "He's such a sharp kid and knows how to get himself in and out of situations. So we're excited to see what we can get done."
So, why is this grade so low?
Because Mosley's salary is so high.
The Jets didn't just aggressively pursue Mosley—they blew the market out of the water. His total contract is over $20 million higher than Luke Kuechly's, and he's making over $2.5 million more per year than Atlanta's Deion Jones, who signed after Mosley.
Mosley's a very good player. But no off-ball linebacker is worth $17 million per season, especially when the money from three of the five years is guaranteed.
I'll go a bit higher than Knox, if only because of Mosley's consistently high level of play. But not much.
QB Nick Foles, Jacksonville Jaguars
Contract terms: Four years, $88 million, $50.1 million guaranteed
Knox's grade: B-
It was no secret that the Jacksonville Jaguars would take a run at Nick Foles in free agency. The Jags badly needed an upgrade under center, and Foles was the best of the available options.
Per ESPN's Michael DiRocco, team owner Shad Khan indicated he's confident the 30-year-old Foles is the missing piece that will get the Jaguars back to the postseason.
"We agreed where we needed to upgrade—obviously at quarterback," Khan said. "We got Nick Foles, and it is very, very encouraging the way we are heading."
Foles had his moments in Philadelphia. He took over each of the last two years for an injured Carson Wentz and led the Eagles on a pair of playoff runs, one of which culminated in a Super Bowl win.
Foles was 6-2 as Philly's starter over the past two regular seasons, but success may be a bit harder to come by in Jacksonville. The Jaguars don't have the best passing-game weaponry, and Foles hasn't been the same quarterback outside Philadelphia.
However, Foles is a sizable upgrade over Blake Bortles, and his average salary of $22 million doesn't look so bad considering some starters are being paid well in excess of $30 million.
That market reset gets this grade bumped a tad.
EDGE Trey Flowers, Detroit Lions
Contract terms: Five years, $90 million, $56 million guaranteed
Knox's grade: B
The Detroit Lions were a sneaky-good defensive team in 2019. They were 10th in total defense and 11th in the NFL with 43 sacks.
That didn't stop the Lions from making one of the most aggressive moves of free agency, inking edge-rusher Trey Flowers to a five-year deal that averages a robust $18 million per season.
In Detroit, Flowers will reunite with head coach Matt Patricia, both formerly of the Patriots. The 25-year-old is a talented, versatile two-way end coming off arguably the best season of his career, and he fills a big area of need in the Motor City.
That's the good news.
However, this comes with a considerable amount of risk. As talented as Flowers may be, he's never registered a 10-sack season. Or an eight-sack season, for that matter.
There's also a history of players leaving the Patriots and failing to recapture past glories. See: Collins, Jamie.
Flowers could be an excellent edge-setter on his new team, just as he was the last few years in New England.
But to live up to his new salary, he's going to tally far more than last year's 7.5 sacks.
Salary info via Spotrac unless otherwise noted.