Free Agency: Five Most Important Re-signings
Free Agency is all about shopping for fancy new pieces to add to your roster. Money is there to be spent and marquee names hit the open market just in time for a bidding war. Some of the biggest moves are made in keeping hold of your own players, however, the guys that get snatched from the clutches of the sharks just before free agency opens.
So let’s take a look at the five most important re-signings this year. For the purposes of this article we will ignore the Franchise Tag, each recipient of which will be technically re-signed, but for just one season and with the aid of the tag itself.
Devin McCourty, S (New England Patriots)
There might not be a bigger or more important move made this offseason than the Patriots keeping hold of Devin McCourty. With both he and Darrelle Revis in need of new deals at the same time the Patriots were always going to struggle to get both moves done, and in the end they put their money in front of McCourty as their top priority.
That alone speaks volumes. While Revis is a top corner and can do a lot of things, the Patriots know that the same is true of McCourty. He is one of the few safeties in football with the range and instincts to be able to play that Earl Thomas role deep center field in a Cover-3 type of scheme. There simply aren’t many guys around that can do it and that is the position that makes that defense work. McCourty is one that can and that makes him a hugely important cog in the defense. Over the past two seasons Earl Thomas has earned a coverage grade at PFF of +20.4, but McCourty is right with him with +20.0.
Locking down McCourty gives Belichick the kind of versatility and freedom to change up his defense that he loves. It’s a huge move to protect the integrity of the New England defense.
Randall Cobb, WR (Green Bay Packers)
The Packers will have one of the league’s most potent offenses as long as Aaron Rodgers is their quarterback. That being said, the best way to help Rodgers chase more rings is by surrounding him with talent and keeping his job as easy as possible. The Green Bay offense lost James Jones and Greg Jennings, and losing Randall Cobb this season would have been a major loss of talent in the space of a couple of seasons.
Cobb is a much bigger part of the offense now than either Jones or Jennings were by the time they departed. Regardless of whether he operates primarily from the slot or not, he provides a crucial foil for Jordy Nelson, ensuring teams can’t simply flood the coverage around Nelson and take away the Packers’ best receiver. When targeting Cobb this season the Packers quarterbacks had a passer rating of 134.3, the best in the NFL when throwing at a single receiver. That figure has been over 114.0 in every season Cobb has been playing. He ran 87.3% of his routes in 2014 from the slot, the most routes by any receiver, and scored a dozen touchdowns from inside. Cobb is a vital part of that offense and a necessary counterweight to Nelson on the outside. Locking him up was a huge move.
Brandon Flowers, CB (San Diego Chargers)
A year ago Brandon Flowers was almost an afterthought signing after he had been cast aside by the Chiefs. That’s how bad his final season in Kansas City was – nobody was even sure he was that worth bringing in. The Chargers gave him a one-year deal to see what was left in a new scheme and city and he re-paid them with a fine season. The 2014 version of Brandon Flowers wasn’t quite back to his best, but it was a lot closer to his career baseline of very good than it was his disastrous 2013 campaign in an ill-suited defense with the Chiefs.
In September, Flowers was the top graded corner at PFF and though his form dipped over the remainder of the season, he still ended it with a +8.2 grade, good enough for 15th in the league. With Flowers and last year’s top pick Jason Verrett, the Chargers have the making of a very good cornerback tandem. Flowers has shown the ability to play well in the slot too, adding versatility to the defense. He allowed a passer rating of just 45.1 when he was the targeted defender covering the slot last year.
Flowers allowed a catch every 16.6 coverage snaps when playing the slot, which was bested only by Revis. The Chargers gave Flowers a test run this past season and they were rightly impressed by what they saw. Flowers was a vital cog to bring back because they can’t yet know exactly what they have in Verrett.
Brandon Graham, ED (Philadelphia Eagles)
The “Free Brandon Graham” movement ended up with a partial victory with this deal. The Eagles have kept Graham on the bench or limited to a bit-part player for years now thanks largely to the starter at his position – Trent Cole. That impediment is no longer in his way, with Cole having been allowed to walk and sign with the Colts. Graham became a logical re-signing to step straight in and see a larger role.
No matter what way you look at the numbers, Graham is a devastating pass-rusher who has been productive in all phases of the gam – the only question mark is playing time and whether he can stand up to the rigors of 500 more snaps a season (his career-high is 524 and that came this season). We have seen nothing to suggest he can’t, so the Eagles are banking that he can at least significantly ramp up his playing time and see the production remain strong. This season despite that playing time he earned a +22.8 overall grade, which was third among 3-4 outside linebackers. His 17.7 Pass Rushing Productivity score (a per-snap measurement of his pass rushing) was the top mark at his position.
We are talking about a player that has shown the ability to be among the best at getting after the passer, and now he finally has the opportunity to show it in a full-time role. For the Eagles, with no Cole, it was a move they needed to make to ensure no significant drop off.
Jerry Hughes, ED (Buffalo Bills)
The final spot was a close run thing, but Buffalo did the smart thing in re-signing Hughes. Hughes is an interesting player who already in his short career has been cast off as a bust before quietly becoming a very good player in Buffalo. The Bills looked initially like they had salvaged a useful pass-rusher out of Hughes when they first got him, but he has developed into an all-around player at his defensive end spot.
Playing on that defensive line in Buffalo certainly doesn’t hurt his ability to play with relatively little attention focused on him, but he still has to beat his man, which is usually the left tackle, the best pass-protector most offenses have to deploy. Over the past two seasons Hughes has notched 120 total pressures (59 in 2013, 61 in 2014), and also earned a grade against the run of +14.2. Great defensive lines are great because they have an abundance of riches along the front. Rex Ryan needs the kind of player that Hughes has become, even with the talent he has elsewhere on the line. The Bills’ defense will be a far better team for this re-signing.
Kareem Jackson, CB (Houston Texans)
Bryan Bulaga, OT (Green Bay Packers)
Mark Ingram, RB (New Orleans Saints)
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam