The Riskiest NFL Free-Agent Signings of the 2020 Offseason

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMarch 30, 2020

The Riskiest NFL Free-Agent Signings of the 2020 Offseason

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Inherent risk exists in all free-agent signings. Some deals are still riskier than others, though.

    Free agency is the NFL's equivalent of the stock market. Each and every move is a futures investment with the hope the return is greater than the original expenditure.

    What may look like an outstanding signing during the offseason may be a disaster waiting to happen.

    For example, the New York Jets signed Trumaine Johnson to a five-year, $72.5 million contract, which made him the league's second-highest-paid cornerback in 2018. The initial investment made sense since Johnson was considered the top available cornerback on the market. Two years later, the 30-year-old defensive back is no longer on the Jets roster after being released because his play never warranted his pay.

    Numerous reasons come into play regarding perceived risk, including potential regression, overreliance on upside, replacement factors, age and comparative contracts. Big investments, in particular, have a way of backfiring after a team "wins the offseason" by making impressive additions on paper.

    Multiple big-name acquisitions this offseason have a high risk of not living up to expectations commensurate with their recent contracts.

Ryan Tannehill, QB, Tennessee Titans

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    The quarterback position operates independently of the rest of the game's with demand, price and timing being significantly more important to the status of the market.

    Ryan Tannehill's emergence last season as a Pro Bowl signal-caller for the Tennessee Titans is a perfect example.

    Tannehill, who was never anything more than average with the Miami Dolphins, didn't enter last season as the Titans' starting quarterback. Marcus Mariota did. But his disappointing play eventually led to Tannehill's insertion into the lineup. Tannehill meshed well with Arthur Smith's offensive scheme and turned in a career year with a 70.3 completion percentage, a league-leading 9.6 yards per attempt and a 22-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

    As a result, he signed a four-year, $118 million deal and will be paid among the league's elite quarterbacks next season. Plus, his salary over the next two campaigns is fully guaranteed, according to ESPN's Dan Graziano.

    Ironically, those fully guaranteed years bring uncertainty.

    Will Tannehill continue to progress and excel for the Titans or regress to his natural state seen over seven seasons with the Dolphins?

    Free-agent deals are built on future returns. The Titans offense should be in a similar spot next year (sans right tackle Jack Conklin and running back Dion Lewis), especially if Derrick Henry eventually signs a long-term deal. Some continuity will certainly help Tannehill's career.

    But the thought of him coming off a career year and not playing as well is a significant risk baked into the most lucrative contract signed this offseason (so far).

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Carolina Panthers

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    Mark Black/Associated Press

    Teddy Bridgewater wanted another opportunity to start. He earned that opportunity. The 27-year-old quarterback can't help the fact that the Carolina Panthers organization doesn't seem to know what it's doing with its current approach, and therein lies the risk.

    Bridgewater's acquisition unto itself is a smart move. He's relatively young with significant upside after playing well in five starts for the New Orleans Saints last season. Furthermore, his transition from one NFC South rival to another should go rather smoothly since new Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady previously served as an offensive assistant for the Saints during Bridgewater's first year in the Big Easy.

    "I'm aware of the situation I'm coming into," Bridgewater said, per Sports Illustrated's Jack Duffy. "I'm coming in to be myself. In New Orleans, I was behind Drew Brees. When he got hurt, I knew I had to step in and fill his shoes. So here it's the same thing. I'm ready for this opportunity."

    But the organization isn't operating in a vacuum.

    The Panthers are caught somewhere between a complete rebuild and trying to remain competitive. The start-stop nature of their offseason plan is clashing to a degree.

    The front office decided to move on from quarterback Cam Newton, tight end Greg Olsen, cornerback James Bradberry, safety Eric Reid and defensive linemen Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe and Mario Addison. Those types of moves signal an organizational restart.   

    Yet, the team subsequently acquired Bridgewater, offensive tackle Russell Okung (for guard Trai Turner), wide receiver Robby Anderson and guard John Miller.

    Right now, the Panthers appear trapped in limbo with no path toward getting significantly better in the ultracompetitive NFC South or completely tanking to build a solid foundation during new head coach Matt Rhule's tenure, because Bridgewater and other recent additions are good enough to keep the team competitive.

Randall Cobb, WR, Houston Texans

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Situation always plays a role in how a signing is viewed.

    The Houston Texans completed arguably—no, wait, definitely—the league's most head-scratching move by trading three-time first-team All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round draft pick to the Arizona Cardinals for running back David Johnson and his ridiculously overpriced contract, a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-round selection.

    In turn, the Texans signed Randall Cobb to a three-year, $27 million free-agent contract.

    "I think obviously with DeAndre leaving, it's going to be a lot of eyes on all three of us to step up and make some plays, and typically me because a lot of people are looking at me and coming in and being a replacement, even though me and DeAndre are two totally different types of receivers," Cobb told reporters during an introductory conference call.

    Cobb primarily works from the slot, whereas Hopkins is a true No. 1 target and lines up all over the formation. As such, a comparison between the two isn't entirely fair, but it'll be made constantly throughout the 2020 campaign.

    At $9 million annually, how much of Hopkins' workload will Cobb replace? Hopkins caught 104 passes for 1,165 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Cobb's best season came six years ago when he caught 91 passes for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns. The nine-year veteran hasn't come close to those numbers during the subsequent five campaigns.

    "More of a possession-type, good feel for playing inside, not as much of an outside WR at this stage," an anonymous NFL executive texted the Houston Chronicle's Aaron Wilson.

    Cobb is a good football player, but he's no Hopkins.

Jimmy Graham, TE, Chicago Bears

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    A glaringly obvious need can make a team desperate. NFL franchises should always be calculated in their approach to every decision. Yet, faulty logic is often used to make decisions for numerous reasons.

    In the Chicago Bears' case, the team desperately needed a tight end upgrade. None on last year's team finished with more than 14 receptions or 91 receiving yards.

    Trey Burton has been a free-agent bust, while Adam Shaheen never developed as expected after being a second-round pick in the 2017 draft.

    So, the franchise targeted and signed Jimmy Graham in free agency. On the surface, the deal makes sense. Graham's name still carries weight. He has a history with general manager Ryan Pace, who helped draft him to the New Orleans Saints. And, yes, he's an upgrade over what the Bears previously placed on the field.

    At the same time, Graham is an aging veteran who is no longer the player he once was and demanded a hefty price in free agency.

    The 33-year-old is coming off his least productive season (38 receptions and 447 yards) since his rookie campaign. Graham sold himself during an introductory conference call as someone with plenty left in the tank.

    "This is the best that I've ran; this is the fastest I've been in the last four or five years," Graham told reporters. "I'm going to get back to being me. I'm going to get back to making big plays and scoring touchdowns because I think I'm somewhere in the top of scoring touchdowns and I want to continue that."

    Organizations take chances on aging veterans to try to capitalize on what's left of their careers. But Graham will be paid like a top-12 tight end over the next two seasons. He's more likely to be released after this season than see his salary-cap hit rise to $10 million in 2021. That's not a good deal.

George Fant, OT, New York Jets

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    The New York Jets signed George Fant to a three-year, $27.3 million free-agent contract with the thought he isn't the long-term answer at left tackle.

    Fant isn't even guaranteed a starting job as part of New York's offensive line.

    The New York Daily News' Manish Mehta reported the Jets' "current plan" is to select an offensive tackle with this year's 11th overall draft pick.

    Basically, the Jets paid a premium just to make sure they weren't left out in the cold with a weak free-agent tackle class and possibly a strong draft class.

    Once Jack Conklin agreed to terms with the Cleveland Browns and Bryan Bulaga chose the Los Angeles Chargers, available offensive tackles fell into three categories: in the twilight of their career, not leaving their previous team or never been a full-time starter.

    Fant fits the final category.

    The former collegiate basketball player is a talented athlete with plenty of upside, but the Western Kentucky product started only 24 games in four seasons and struggled during those opportunities.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Fant allowed 17 pressures last season in four starts at left tackle for the Seattle Seahawks, whereas four-time Pro Bowler Duane Brown allowed 17 total pressures in the other 12 games.

    The 27-year-old blocker isn't exactly the caliber of lineman a team should want on a still-developing first-round pick's blind side. The Jets want to place Sam Darnold in a position to succeed. That probably won't occur if the organization can't land a top offensive tackle prospect in this year's draft and Fant is forced to start for an entire season.

Leonard Williams, DL, New York Giants

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Technically, the New York Giants and Leonard Williams have yet to reach a new deal. Instead, the organization placed the franchise tag on the defensive lineman.

    When looking through that lens, the idea of New York paying Williams $17 million—which would place him in the same salary range as Cameron Jordan, Fletcher Cox, J.J. Watt and Geno Atkins—might be the most stubborn and riskiest move of the offseason, because the 25-year-old hasn't come close to realizing his potential.

    The Giants' decision looks even worse when considering the franchise basically bid against itself. The player's representation now knows what the organization is willing to pay after trading a 2020 third- and 2021 fifth-round pick for his services last season.

    "He'll get a really solid deal if they keep him after this or he'll go to the market knowing the Giants valued him at $16 million," an unnamed agent told the New York Post's Paul Schwartz. "If he gets $10 million [average], it would still be $26 million in guaranteed money in two years."

    Consider the following: Only one defensive lineman this offseason—the San Francisco 49ers' Arik Armstead (more on him later)—came close to signing a deal worth annually what Williams is expected to make if he signs his franchise tender. At least Armstead produced 10 sacks in a breakthrough 2019 campaign. Williams isn't nearly as disruptive as other defensive linemen who agreed to new deals this offseason.

    The potential is there. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams posted a better adjusted win rate against true passing sets than fellow franchise-tag club member Yannick Ngakoue.

    Yet, the former doesn't consistently collapse the pocket to warrant a premium contract. He'll be paid like he does, though, whether it's with the franchise tag or a new long-term deal. Williams will never live up to the expectations unless he becomes a complete defensive lineman. 

Arik Armstead, DE, San Francisco 49ers

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers had a decision to make, and they may have made the incorrect choice.

    With the official start of free agency nearing, 49ers general manager John Lynch chose to re-sign defensive end Arik Armstead to a five-year, $85 million contract extension and trade fellow defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick.

    Keeping Armstead isn't the problem. He's a quality performer coming off a career year, though two potential pitfalls could haunt Lynch.

    First, the 26-year-old struggled to find a role in his first four seasons before blossoming last year. His 10 sacks bettered the nine he posted between 2015 and 2018. Obviously, Armstead finally felt comfortable in Robert Saleh's defense. However, a question of potential regression can't entirely be ignored, especially when the defensive end's worst game came in Super Bowl LIV against Kansas City Chiefs standout right tackle Mitchell Schwartz.

    A second question must be asked: Did Lynch sign the better player, or did he leave via trade?

    Buckner is an elite interior defender, and the Colts quickly made him one of the league's highest paid with a four-year, $84 million contract extension. Only the Los Angeles Rams' Aaron Donald—a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year—makes more than Buckner's new $21 million annual salary.

    Clearly, a financial element played a part in the 49ers' decision to retain Armstead over Buckner. San Francisco doesn't have much salary-cap space at the moment with a possible George Kittle extension looming.

    If Armstead regresses at all while his former teammate continues to play at an exceptional level, the 49ers will have made a disastrous mistake as the franchise hopes to retain its recently established Super Bowl standard.

Blake Martinez, LB, New York Giants

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Production can be misleading.

    Blake Martinez finished top-three in total tackles in each of the last three seasons. His production can't be matched during that period.

    Conversely, the 26-year-old isn't a true three-down linebacker. His utilization in Patrick Graham's new defensive scheme will be the telltale sign whether the ultraproductive middle linebacker lives up to his three-year, $30.75 million contract.

    Consistency is a valuable trait, and Martinez amassed 144 or more tackles over the past three seasons. However, legitimate questions can be raised about his overall effectiveness, athleticism and role on obvious passing downs.

    The four-year veteran is neither a true downhill thumper nor a sideline-to-sideline defender. Of Martinez's 155 total tackles last season, only 3 percent (or five in total) resulted in a tackle for loss.

    Also, the 2016 fourth-round pick can be exposed in coverage. Martinez is a smart linebacker who knows his drops and angles. But he's not quick enough to match up against bigger and more athletic tight ends or capable of handling receivers in space.

    Knowing these two things, the Giants must carve a niche for their new "Mike" and make sure his skill set is maximized. New York can do so by viewing Martinez as a two-down linebacker and part of blitz packages. He proved effective as a blitzer in Mike Pettine's defensive scheme the last two seasons and registered eight sacks during that span.

    Martinez received a similar contract to those agreed upon by Cory Littleton and Joe Schobert. The latter two are far better in coverage. The Giants' new linebacker has to be viewed in a different manner. 

Trae Waynes, CB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Cornerback carries a premium, and the Cincinnati Bengals paid one when the franchise signed Trae Waynes to a three-year, $42 million free-agent contract.

    Three numbers need to be kept in mind when assessing this contract.

    At $14 million annually, Waynes signed the fourth-richest cornerback contract this offseason. At first blush, that doesn't seem too bad as it pertains to the market. However, Waynes' salary is in line with those signed by Darius Slay, Byron Jones and James Bradberry ($14.5-16.7 million annually).

    Slay and Jones are both Pro Bowl-caliber corners, while Bradberry is considered one of the league's better young cover corners.

    Waynes' play doesn't exactly mirror his new tax bracket.

    According to Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson, the 2015 11th overall pick has allowed a 91 quarterback rating and 62 completion percentage into his coverage throughout the entirety his career. Those aren't good numbers by any measure.

    The five-year veteran is quite good in man coverage, but he really struggles in zone. Knowing this, the Bengals can capitalize on his skill set if they allow him to lock onto a single receiver and shadow a specific opponent throughout contests.

    Cincinnati made its secondary a priority with the Waynes, Mackensie Alexander and Von Bell signings, even with Dre Kirkpatrick, William Jackson and Shawn Williams already on the roster. If Waynes develops into a true No. 1 corner who covers each opponent's top wide receiver, he'll be well worth the money. But he hasn't been that player to this point in his career.