Free Agency: Five Best Signings
Sorting through the free agency buzz is always enjoyable, trying to picture players in new uniforms, projecting how they’ll fit in. The biggest names don’t always prove to be the best signings, particularly with the crazy price tags that come with “splash move” free agency.
Most often, the best moves are more under-the-radar as the Seattle Seahawks showed by signing our top two edge rushers in 2013 free agency, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, to favorable deals and both players became key cogs on their Super Bowl championship team. Last year, the New England Patriots made a shrewd move to sign a released CB Darrelle Revis, but avoiding a long-term deal allowed them to essentially rent Revis for a year on their way to a Super Bowl title of their own.
The best deals are often the ones that find good players at a bargain price, rather than finding the best player that will never live up to the expectations of an enormous contract. That said, here’s a look at the best free agent deals that combine a quality player with a quality price tag.
Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets
One of the few players worth the big money, Revis signing with the Jets not only strengthens a major need a cornerback, but it also weakens division rival, the Patriots. Revis has been as good as any cornerback in football since his epic 2009 season (+31.9 coverage grade, 32.2 passer rating against), and last year was no different as he was entrusted to man a side of the Patriots’ defense and was a key cog in their championship run.
Revis’ +15.0 coverage grade ranked fourth in the league last season as he was targeted only once every 7.7 snaps in coverage, second-fewest in the league behind Richard Sherman. His ability to play man coverage with little safety help allows resources to be used elsewhere, providing a valuable numbers advantage for the defense. For the Jets, this was a big move to bring him back into the fold and plug him into new head coach Todd Bowles’ defense, while for Patriots, it creates a massive void that allowed them to play an aggressive style of defense that was rarely seen since their previous Super Bowl teams of the early 2000s.
Terrance Knighton, DT, Washington Redskins
The defensive tackle market was surprisingly slow, allowing Washington to pounce on Knighton for a bargain-basement one-year, $4 million deal. Knighton has emerged as one of the league’s best nose tackles the last two seasons, especially against the run where he graded at +7.7 in 2013 and +11.2 last season. He also tacked on a +10.1 pass rush grade in 2013 including the playoffs and his play from Week 10 on was as good as any defensive tackle in the league.
Knighton fills a huge need on the defensive line for the Redskins where their linemen were a sea of red last season, surrounded by another strong effort from DE Jason Hatcher. He should be an upgrade over nose tackles Chris Baker (-3.4) and Barry Cofield (-9.2), both of whom have graded negatively against the run each of the last two years. When you throw newly-signed DT Stephen Paea into the mix, the Redskins have done well to revamp their defensive front.
Nick Fairley, DT, St. Louis Rams
Another underpriced defensive tackle, Fairley has the potential to be the biggest steal, and perhaps the most productive player, in this free agent class. Obviously there are some concerns — namely, his inability to stay on the field and some inconsistency that has plagued his career — but his talent is well worth the risk on a one-year, $5 million deal.
At his best, Fairley is a game changer against both run and pass, as evidenced by a +15.1 overall grade in 2012 (Ndamukong Suh was +15.2) and his +9.8 mark on only 297 snaps last season. To put it in perspective, his 10.0 Pass Rushing Productivity was tops among DTs with at least 150 pass rushing snaps while his Run Stop Percentage of 8.9 ranked 14th among the top 82 qualifiers.
Perhaps even more exciting is the prospect of Fairley lining up next to last year’s PFF Defensive Rookie of the Year, Aaron Donald. While Fairley may be best suited to play the 3-technique position that Donald mans, he played plenty of 2i- and 1-technique a year ago with the Lions, perhaps showing that both players can co-exist on the same line. Incumbent nose tackle Michael Brockers has posted -1.5, -7.1, and +0.4 overall grades in his three years in the league, leading to believe that Fairley has a good chance of cutting into his early-down snaps while creating a third-down pass rushing force of Fairley and Donald at defensive tackle combined with defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long coming off the edge. If the Rams find a way to get the most out of Fairley, they may have the most dangerous defensive line in the league.
Rahim Moore, FS, Houston Texans
A weak safety market and the re-signing of Patriots FS Devin McCourty left Moore as our top option for teams looking to upgrade at free safety. While less productive players signed big deals, Moore waited a few days before signing with the Texans for $12 million over three years. Moore and McCourty represented the only true free safeties on the market this offseason, so while Houston isn’t getting a do-it-all type of safety that other teams valued, they’re adding one of the few capable of being trusted in an every-down centerfield role.
Moore has graded positively in coverage each of the least three seasons, avoiding big plays in the passing game for the most part. Throw in the fact that he’s 25 years old and the Texans appear to be getting a steal in one of the league’s better free safeties as he enters the prime of his career, rather than sliding past it, as is the case with many free agents.
Pernell McPhee, DE/OLB, Chicago Bears
Coming off a strong season with the Baltimore Ravens, McPhee adds a valuable chess piece to the Bears’ front-7. It’s tough to pigeonhole a position for McPhee – he finished with the third-highest pass rushing grade among 3-4 OLBs at +23.1 – but it was his versatility up front that made him an attractive free agent commodity. He lined up at outside linebacker on 230 snaps, defensive end (3 or 4-man line) for 204 snaps and even playing inside linebacker for 149 snaps, showing that he can win in multiple roles. His ability to move around certainly helped his production as the Ravens used him to find favorable matchups, but that’s a big part of McPhee’s value. If the Bears continue to use him in this way, they’ll have added a pass rushing presence to go along with last year’s free agent signings Willie Young and Jared Allen.
We have some concerns internally that McPhee can hold up as an every down run stopper, but he may not need to. He’s certainly no slouch in that area with positive grades the last two seasons, but playing the run has been more of an afterthought in his situational pass rushing role. If the Bears try to get 800 or so snaps out of McPhee just to get their money’s worth, they may be disappointed, but if deployed in a similar manner as he was in Baltimore, McPhee should cause opposing offenses headaches while making the rest of the pieces in Chicago’s front-7 better in the process.
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