Free Agency: Five Biggest Losses
For most teams, free agency is about adding key pieces to strengthen their rosters or to address a pressing need. Every team hopes to exit free agency either stronger than before, or after losing only the players they were willing to lose. However, every year there are teams that lose an irreplaceable star, and find themselves scrambling for a way to minimize the damage caused by that departure.
So let’s take a look at the five biggest losses this year.
Ndamukong Suh, DI (Detroit Lions)
It’s exceedingly rare that an elite talent such as Ndamukong Suh hits the open market. Over the past three seasons only three interior defensive linemen have exceeded Suh’s +75.5 cumulative overall grade; and only one of those (Gerald McCoy) has bettered Suh’s +77.1 pass rushing grade. There are few more naturally disruptive players in the NFL, and while Suh was sometimes liability against the run early in his career, he has become a more savvy player over time, as discussed in our Free Agent Profile.
In many respects the Lions are the unfortunate victims of drafting Suh prior to the introduction of the rookie wage scale. The final year of his rookie deal was exorbitant, meaning that it would have cost the team close to $27M (with a $36m total cap hit) to use the franchise tag. Instead they were forced to let him test the market in the hope that they could match any offer. That didn’t go to plan, leaving the Lions’ with a Suh shaped hole in the middle of their defensive line. A problem compounded by the loss of Nick Fairley to the St. Louis Rams.
The Lions have responded to their departures by trading for Haloti Ngata (+18.4 overall in 2014), and signing Tyrunn Walker (+8.0), both of whom impressed in 2014. The 31-year-old Ngata has the name recognition value the Lions required to appease their fans, a little at least. However Ngata’s +25.7 cumulative grade over the last three years pales in comparison with Suh’s; as does his tally of 10 sacks and 73 total pressures in that span, when compared to Suh’s 22 sacks and 187 total pressures. The Lions may also look to add a little more interior line talent through the draft, but it’s hard to see them emerging from this offseason with anything other than a net loss of talent at the position.
DeMarco Murray, HB (Dallas Cowboys)
DeMarco Murray was terrific in 2014, leading the league with 1,845 rushing yards (489 yards clear of the second-placed Le’Veon Bell), and tied for the lead with 13 rushing touchdowns. A lot of the credit for that has been given to the Cowboys’ excellent offensive line, our second-best run blocking unit in the league; some of that credit sharing is justified, but certainly not all of it. For all the clean running lanes that were opened ahead of him, Murray still led all running backs with 998 rushing yards after contact, and forced 67 missed tackles in the run game (second behind only Marshawn Lynch). Murray finished the season with a +16.8 run grade; you don’t get that if all your production comes from the play of line. Moreover, Murray has graded positively as a runner in each of his four seasons in the NFL, yet he hasn’t always been blessed with an elite line to run behind.
Murray has had durability issues through his first four seasons, 2014 was the first in his career that he managed to play every game, and even then he finished the season playing through injury. There is also concern over his workload. Including the playoffs, Murray had 498 total touches in 2014; few backs can sustain the beating that comes with that workload and continue to produce at an elite level. Murray is only 27, though, and his career workload is less than that of most other star running backs, as discussed in one of our PFF Shorts. So while a downturn is possible, there is little reason to expect that it will come in 2015.
The team has added Darren McFadden, whose brilliant college career hasn’t translated well at the professional level. They may also dip into a seemingly strong running back draft class, however no rookie back has ever matched Murray’s 2014 production, and the odds of finding another Eric Dickerson (1,808 yards as a rookie) are incredibly slim.
The Cowboys unquestionably made the fiscally sound move, but however smart it was, it will still hurt them on the field, particularly when they face the Eagles. In an ideal world the Cowboys would have kept Murray, he was a perfect scheme fit, but they were unwilling to pay the going rate to do so; you can’t have your cake and eat it.
Jimmy Graham, TE (New Orleans Saints)
There is method behind the madness in New Orleans. Unsettled, unwanted or expensive players have been shipped out, and in their place the team has gathered extra draft collateral. If used wisely, that should result in an influx of young, and very affordable talent. It’s conceivable that the Saints could enter the 2015 season at least as talented as they were at every position in 2014, well every position bar one, tight end.
Jimmy Graham is an elite receiving tight end, and the Saints hit a home run when they drafted him in the third round in 2010. With few attractive options left in free agency, and a seemingly weak draft for tight ends, the team must either manage to catch lightning in a bottle once again, or find a way to compensate for the loss through increased production from other facets of the offense.
Graham flashed talent toward the end of his rookie season, then starred over the four seasons since, leading all tight ends as a receiver in 2013 with a +18.2 grade. In those four years Graham has more catches (371), receiving yards (4606) and receiving touchdowns (49) than any other Saint, catching 28.8% of all touchdowns thrown by Drew Brees in that span. That’s is a significant amount of production to lose.
Darrelle Revis, CB (New England Patriots)
The Darrelle Revis sweepstakes could not have ended worse for the New England Patriots. They found themselves priced out of the market by a divisional rival, paving the way for Revis to return home to the New York Jets. Revis’s stay in Foxboro was brief, but also a complete success. It brought him his first Super Bowl victory, and helped the Patriots to their first Championship in a decade.
However, despite the ephemeral nature of his stay, Revis was such a success that his departure leaves a hole that cannot easily be filled. His +15.0 coverage grade was the fourth-best mark among corners in 2014, it was also the best grade recorded by a pure corner for the Patriots since our records began back in 2007. There were no obvious in-house replacements waiting in the wings, nor were there corners on the open market with the talent and body of work to match Revis. In the absence of any available outstanding talents, the Patriots have tried to address their need through numbers, signing Robert McClain (-11.7 coverage grade in 2014), Chimdi Chekwa (-2.0) and Bradley Fletcher (-12.7), and hoping that at least one of them can step up.
As for Revis himself, he will be 30 by the time the 2015 season begins and Sam Monson suggests that there are early signs of a declining skill set. Age slows us all, but even if Revis has lost a little of his physical edge, remains an excellent corner and should be better in 2015 than any corner on the Patriots roster. His absence will be felt in New England.
Patrick Willis, LB (San Francisco 49ers)
While the Patrick Willis retirement caught the general public as a surprise, it was likely expected by the team. However, the subsequent retirement of his in-house replacement, Chris Borland, leaves the 49ers in a quandary they could not have foreseen, magnifying the fallout caused by the Willis departure.
That’s not to say that Borland for Willis would be a seamless transition. Borland’s +20.8 rookie campaign was terrific, the second-best mark recorded by a rookie inside linebacker since our records began in 2007. Of course the best rookie mark was the +22.2 mark posted by Willis in 2007. Borland excelled as a run stopper, but while competent in all aspects of the position, he lacked Willis’s elite athleticism and natural cover skills.
Including the postseason, Willis played 120 games across eight seasons, finishing his career with a ridiculous +186.5 cumulative overall grade. He finished each of his first six seasons as either our top-ranked or second-ranked inside linebacker, and never finished a year with a negative coverage grade. Whether his career proves worthy of the Hall of Fame is likely to be a question of longevity, but he played at a Hall of Fame level for as long as he was in the league.
Replacing that level of performance precisely will be next to impossible. Even so, the 49ers would have felt pretty confident entering 2015 pairing Borland with Navarro Bowman in the middle, but without Borland to step in, replacing Willis becomes an extremely tall order.