Ranking the NFL's Worst Early 2020 Free-Agency Moves

Martin FennContributor IIIMarch 19, 2020

Ranking the NFL's Worst Early 2020 Free-Agency Moves

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Free agency is a pressure cooker. Nearly every NFL offseason brings with it a sense of promise as well as a sense of fear.

    Organizations have to take a number of things into account when constructing offers for some of the best players on the market: total value, guaranteed money, fit, positional precedent (which positions make the most money) and a host of others.

    All these considerations—paired with the demand for players at certain positions—can cause front offices to make questionable decisions.

    Contracts are a messy business, and every player wants to be appropriately valued. But sometimes teams go overboard, such as when the San Francisco 49ers threw $54 million at Kwon Alexander last offseason.

    Here we present the worst early free-agency moves of 2020. This list was organized in terms of projected future production versus contract value and also took into account opportunity cost, injury history and positional context.

          

10. DT DeForest Buckner, Indianapolis Colts

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    On one hand, DeForest Buckner will undoubtedly have a profound impact on the Indianapolis Colts defense. He was dominant in each of his last two seasons with the Niners, totaling 19.5 sacks from the defensive tackle spot.

    But at the same time, the Colts agreed to give up their 2020 first-round pick and agreed to pay Buckner $21 million per year, the second-highest annual average at the position behind Los Angeles Rams star Aaron Donald's $22.5 million.

    Is Buckner the same kind of revolutionary talent as Donald? That was a rhetorical question, because nobody is quite like Donald. Yet Indianapolis will pay Buckner as if he has already made multiple All-Pro teams; he is a one-time Pro Bowler.

    Granted, Buckner was always going to command a large contract in light of the one the Niners gave Arik Armstead (five years, $85 million). As for the draft pick (No. 13 overall), it seems inconsequential when considering Buckner is one of the better defenders in football.

    At the same time, the Colts might have otherwise used that pick to draft one of the top receivers in the class, especially since they landed veteran quarterback Philip Rivers. The free-agent market is extraordinarily weak at the position, which will make it hard for Indianapolis to find quality. Not to mention, T.Y. Hilton is on an expiring contract.

9. QB Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Firstly, credit where credit is due.

    Ryan Tannehill led the Tennessee Titans to wins in six of his first seven starts after taking over for Marcus Mariota in Week 7. He also dominated during the first half of a must-win Week 17 game at the Houston Texans and—though the Titans relied almost exclusively on running back Derrick Henry—played well enough to push Tennessee to the AFC Championship Game.

    Perhaps using the franchise tag on Henry and re-signing Tannehill was the best route. But four years and $118 million (including $62 million guaranteed) was a princely sum for a guy with a .500 career record.

    It should also be noted Tannehill led all passers in yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt and quarterback rating while completing 70.3 percent of his passes. His move into the starter's role had a direct correlation with A.J. Brown's development into a star.

    Still, Tannehill will make nearly the same annual average as Tom Brady, and he will be 32 in July. The money seems excessive—even if the Titans are attempting to embrace this being their championship window.

8. TE Austin Hooper, Cleveland Browns

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns got Baker Mayfield yet another receiving option, which is great news for their young quarterback.

    But as for making Austin Hooper the highest-paid tight end in football? That was unwarranted.

    Cleveland agreed to sign him to a four-year deal worth $44 million with $23 million guaranteed. Hooper had his best year with the Atlanta Falcons in 2019 as he hauled in 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns. But is a guy who averaged 10.5 yards per reception and cannot block worth the most money at the position?

    Perhaps the answer is yes. Alternatively, the Browns might have been better off spending in other areas.

    Fellow Browns tight end David Njoku missed 12 games in 2019 and was mostly ineffective when he did play, but he is still an athletic player who had some success in 2018. Rather than offering Hooper a fortune, the Browns might have supplemented Njoku by signing someone like Eric Ebron while pursuing other upgrades on the offensive line.

    Pro Football Focus ranked the Browns' offensive line 23rd, hardly encouraging for a team still building around quarterback Baker Mayfield. Signing Jack Conklin is certainly an improvement, but the Browns could also have used some of the money they gave to Hooper to ensure further protection for Mayfield.

7. LB Christian Kirksey, Green Bay Packers

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Christian Kirksey is one of the more reliable tacklers in football when healthy. He made 148 stops in 2016 and 138 more in 2017. But the problem is Kirksey is never healthy.

    The former Browns linebacker was cut by Cleveland in part because he has played just nine games over the past two seasons.

    The Green Bay Packers needed to fill a void in the middle given they had limited cap space and that Blake Martinez agreed to sign with the New York Giants. However, valuing Kirksey at $8 million annually is ludicrous.

    Again, he has not shown he can stay healthy. Moreover, Martinez will earn $10 million per year, and new Las Vegas Raiders backer Cory Littleton agreed to sign for three years and $36 million. The Packers couldn't clear some space to bring back Martinez or at least make a concerted run at Littleton?

    Perhaps Kirksey will fill in ably for Martinez in the middle of the defense. Alternatively, another injury will leave a gaping hole—and general manager Brian Gutekunst's pockets will feel that much emptier.

6. G Ereck Flowers, Miami Dolphins

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    The Miami Dolphins had to address their offensive line.

    Pro Football Focus ranked the unit as the worst in football, and the Dolphins had options with plenty of hogs hitting the open market this offseason.

    Yet somehow they agreed with Ereck Flowers on a three-year, $30 million contract. Why is this consequential? There were other options out there, at both the tackle and guard spots.

    Flowers—a bust with the Giants—earned his keep with the Washington Redskins by switching to guard. Yet he still ranked 33rd in pass-blocking at the position, and his history is disconcerting.

    Might the Dolphins have been better off spending a little more on Graham Glasgow to improve their run blocking or even pivoting to the tackle position to sign Bryan Bulaga, who agreed to the same contract?

5. OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai Detroit Lions

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Halapoulivaati Vaitai is more of an upside bet than anything, and yet the Detroit Lions will give him big money.

    Detroit agreed to sign Vaitai to a five-year, $50 million deal even though he has made just four starts in the last two years and was on the field for just 41 percent of snaps last season.

    Sure, Vaitai filled in for Jason Peters during the 2017 Super Bowl run, but that was two-plus years ago. The Lions needed to upgrade their line regardless of whether they trade quarterback Matthew Stafford, but they—much like the Dolphins—could have used the consistent, veteran presence of Bryan Bulaga.

    Vaitai will be only 27 in June, so this could become a nice deal if he contributes immediately. But for now it is a head-scratcher, especially because the prized Jack Conklin agreed to sign with the Browns for $42 million (albeit at $14 million per year) and Bulaga signed with the Los Angeles Chargers for just $30 million.

4. CB Byron Jones, Miami Dolphins

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Byron Jones was ranked as the top corner in the first four weeks of the 2018 season by PFF, and he completed a monster campaign with 14 pass deflections and was named to the Pro Bowl.

    The 27-year-old was targeted less in 2019 as a result, giving him the aura of a lockdown corner as he headed into free agency.

    However, is Jones worth being the highest-paid corner in football? Well, he was the third-most valuable corner over the last two years, per PFF. He's also held opposing quarterbacks to a 52.8 percent completion rate in that span. The answer seems to be yes, especially considering the Dolphins will pair him alongside Xavien Howard.

    But five years and $82 million? That is a massive commitment for Miami, especially because Jones will be 28 in September and the team has yet to prove it is anywhere close to playoff contention.

    What happens if Jones flops midway through his contract? We could be talking about the next Nnamdi Asomugha.

    It was a big risk to give Jones this kind of money given where the Dolphins are, especially because he does not produce takeaways (just two career interceptions and zero since 2017).

3. CB Trae Waynes, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    The Dolphins placed a high valuation on Byron Jones, but at least he has the pedigree to back it up.

    The Cincinnati Bengals agreed to sign Trae Waynes to a three-year, $42 million deal even though he was mediocre in his five years with the Minnesota Vikings. Waynes was the 46th-graded corner in 2019, according to PFF. Opposing quarterbacks had plenty of success against him.

    Waynes was targeted 96 times, and passers completed 74 percent of their attempts with five touchdowns and a 107.9 rating. How does that warrant an average annual value of $14 million?

    This signing was made worse after former All-Pro corner Chris Harris Jr. agreed to sign with the Los Angeles Chargers for two years and $20.25 million. Yes, Harris is older. He will be 31 in June. But he also has a far more established pedigree, and he is quite a bit more cost-effective.

    The Bengals might have passed on Harris and pivoted to the younger Waynes because they feel they are in somewhat of a rebuild. Even still, signing Harris or someone like Desmond Trufant, who agreed to join the Detroit Lions for two years and $21 million, would have been smarter than reaching for Waynes. 

2. TE Jimmy Graham, Chicago Bears

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Tight end was a position of need for the Chicago Bears, and with Hunter Henry receiving the franchise tag and Austin Hooper agreeing to a big deal with the Browns, they did not have a ton of options.

    But agreeing to sign Jimmy Graham to a two-year, $16 million deal (with $9 million guaranteed) hardly seems like the best use of the little cap space the Bears have. Graham will be 34 in November, and he lacks the athleticism he possessed in his prime.

    Plus, if Graham could barely produce with Aaron Rodgers under center, is he really going to be a dynamic playmaker alongside either of Chicago's quarterbacks? Nick Foles might be an upgrade over Mitchell Trubisky, but he is also a quarterback with a propensity for throwing the deep ball, and Graham is no longer a deep threat.

    There were other options on the market, most notably Eric Ebron. While Ebron has been chastised in the past for drops, he has far more big-play ability than Graham.

    Bears general manager Ryan Pace is running out of excuses, and he could be on his way out the door if Graham flops.

1. WR Randall Cobb, Houston Texans

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    No disrespect to Cobb, who had a bounce-back year with the Cowboys in 2019 and has been one of the better slot receivers in football over the length of his career. 

    But signing Cobb to a three-year, $27 million deal as the primary replacement for departing All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins is downright madness.

    Not only does Cobb pale in comparison to Hopkins, but he is mostly a slot receiver, and Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson has more of a tendency to go out wide or to tight ends like Darren Fells. Moreover, it feels like the Texans could have gotten more value at wideout, such as signing a guy like Emmanuel Sanders.

    Sure, Sanders is older, but Spotrac has his market value at just over two years and $20 million. That is pretty good value for a guy that can line up all over the field averaged close to 14 yards per reception and 9.5 yards per target last season in a wide-open Niners offense. Interestingly enough, Jane Slater of NFL Network previously reported the Cowboys have interest in signing Sanders.

    Cobb averaged over 15 yards per reception, but that was more of an outlier. He does not have a history of being a No.1 receiver. What happens if Will Fuller V gets injured again, are the Texans counting on Cobb to make that leap and become one the NFL’s top targets?

    Sanders, meanwhile, was unquestionably the No.1 guy in his final years with the Denver Broncos, and he has more potential as a game-changer. Houston might have been better off offering Sanders a short deal at a higher AAV than going for Cobb.