With most of the free agency madness now behind us and the majority of the big names signed to brand new contracts it’s time to take a moment and reflect on these deals. How do the players fit into their new team? Does the money make sense? In other words, it’s time to take out our big red marker and give out some grades!!
Malik Jackson, DT/DE: Signed with Jacksonville Jaguars at 6 years/$85.5 million
Jackson’s name sprung to prominence with his touchdown in the Super Bowl and generally impressive post-season form, and the Jaguars do need talent along the defensive line. But it’s hard to look at the Broncos and not consider just how well Jackson would have played surrounded by average talent instead of the All-Pro cast he was playing with. Jackson is a very good run defender, he has a solid sack rate for someone who plays in the interior of the defense and he lead the Broncos defensive line with 75% of all snaps played but Jacksonville have given him a lot of money. That amount would usually be reserved for elite defenders and I don’t think Jackson is that. He’s good don’t get me wrong, and will certainly be an upgrade over what the Jags currently have on the interior, but can he be as good as he was in the playoffs when surrounded by lesser talent and playing even more snaps? Jacksonville aren’t paying him for 75% of the available snaps, they’re going to need that number up in the 80’s at least if they want to make serious improvements on defense this season. As far as the overall money goes it’s actually fine. In a normal year, with a normal team that would be a ridiculous amount for someone with as little elite pedigree as Jackson has, but the Jaguars have to spend their cap space this year, so why not shop at the top of the market and over pay a little?
Alex Mack, C: Signed with Atlanta Falcons at 5 years/$47.5 million
Atlanta have struggled to find good interior blocking for a while now, so stepping out and offering the best center available a contract that will make him one of the best paid interior blockers in the league makes complete sense. Mack, aged 30, has long been one of the best centers in the NFL and has experience in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. He was spectacular in the early part of 2014, Shanahan’s only year in Cleveland, before he broke his leg and while his 2015 season was slightly disappointing as he made his way back to full health by 2016 the physical and mental issues of a lower leg injury on the line of scrimmage should be gone, and if they’re not? Well 80% of Alex Mack is still a vast improvement over what the Falcons have had recently. As far as the contract itself goes, it it a little long but most of the money is front loaded so should Mack start to decline it will be easy for the Falcons to get out of the last year or two and not kill their cap. In short they filled a position of need with a great player on a decent contract. That’s a good bit of business.
Olivier Vernon, DE: Signed with New York Giants at 5 years/$85 million
Wow. When the Dolphins removed the transitional tag from Olivier Vernon it was clear the Giants would be interested, but that is a staggering contract. Look, the Giants had over $50 million in cap space and a glaring need for a pass rusher. But this contract is enormous. How enormous? Last off-season JJ Watt, universally considered the best defender in football, got a 6 year, $100 million contract. Vernon even gets the same guaranteed amount ($52 million) as Watt. Yes, there is a difference between negotiating on the open market and negotiating an extension with your team, but in any comparison with Watt Olivier Vernon is going to come up very short. It’s not that he’s a bad player. Pro Football Focus graded him as the 3rd best edge defender in 2015, but he can be wildly inconsistent. He registered 36 QB hits in 2015, which is a great total and a better indicator of consistent pressure than sack totals, but in 2014 he got just 13. In 2013, when he had a career high 11.5 sacks, he got 16 QB hits. So has Vernon made a permanent improvement to his skill set or is his 2015 season an aberration? Delving a bit deeper we can see that 10 of his QB hits this season came against Philadelphia and Baltimore, who both had offensive tackle issues in 2015. Yes, other players feast on poor opposition as well but that doesn’t absolve Vernon. When we look back at this deal, particularly in relation to the money other pass rushers will be getting, I think it will stand out like a sore thumb when you compare his production to those of a similar pay scale.
Travis Benjamin, WR: Signed with San Diego Chargers at 4 years/$24 million
This is probably the most sensible contract handed out in free agency so far. Benjamin had easily his best season in 2015, his production matching or beating what he had done over his previous 3 years in Cleveland combined. San Diego needed not just a wide receiver but some speed on the outside to alleviate the pressure on the aging Antonio Gates and the slow Keenan Allen underneath. Yes, you shouldn’t pay based on one good year, but the Chargers are hardly spending anything on Benjamin. With just $13 million guaranteed it’s far from an onerous contract. He is far from a polished product but having Phil Rivers throw him the football instead of the cavalcade of disasters he’s played with in Cleveland will help a great deal. Benjamin also adds value as a returner, an area the Chargers were just awful in last season.
Brock Osweiler, QB: Signed with Houston Texans at 4 years/$72 million
That is an awful lot of money for a guy who spent most of the 2015 season watching his defense win games for him. Look, the Texans season crashed and burnt with a horrific playoff performance from Brian Hoyer where he went Full Delhomme (4 picks & a fumble) so it was clear the Texans would be looking to upgrade at quarterback this year, but is Osweiler really the guy? His performance, in isolation from wins and losses, was middling at best. Sure, that looked amazing compared to what Peyton Manning was doing out there, but that doesn’t make it good. By Football Outsiders DVOA metric, which accounts for the level of opposition faced, Osweiler was below average. While he has the prototypical size and arm strength that NFL teams love he lacks some of the smarts and reading ability that can turn those tools into a good or great quarterback. So the question becomes can he improve with more experience and with a full preseason of being “the guy”? The pressure on him will certainly be less as he doesn’t have a Hall of Fame quarterback’s last shot at glory resting on his shoulders, or any franchise pedigree to live up to. Bill O’Brien has generated decent offense with middling quarterbacks before so it’s not out of the question that Osweiler can develop into a better than average player, and given the other options on the free agent market and where they are picking in the draft it’s understandable that they threw money at Osweiler, that doesn’t mean it will end up being money well spent though.
Kelechi Osemele, G/T: Signed with Oakland Raiders at 5 years/$60 million
This is an interesting one. I love Osemele as a guard. He’s a brutal mauler in the run game and agile enough to hold up in pass protection. But the contract given out by the Raiders would seem to suggest they see him as an offensive tackle. As out top 10 Offensive Line contract piece showed, guards just aren’t paid that much but tackles certainly are. Osemele finished the 2015 season at left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens and was ok, but that’s an awfully small sample size to be hanging $60 million and your young quarterbacks health on. If he does line up at left tackle and is just average then it’s a small overpay from a team that had a mountain of cash to throw around and a hole at left tackle they had to fill. If he plays guard then it’s a market-setting deal for quality young blocker. And if they line Osemele up at left tackle and he plays like D’Brickashaw Ferguson or Trent Williams then the Raiders have themselves an absolute steal.