10 free-agent signings that will make an immediate impact
Free agency is about making immediate upgrades to your team, patching holes that your own player development (through the draft) has failed. With the new trend to front-load, rather than back-load, contracts, teams are looking for immediate impacts from their free-agent signings to justify the ever-increasing investment in free agents. Here’s a look at 10 players who should make an immediate impact on their new team in 2016.
1. Malik Jackson, DE, Jaguars
As the marquee free agent of the year, you’d certainly hope that Jackson will make an immediate impact for the Jags. While he may struggle to live up to that price tag, there should be no doubt that Jackson will upgrade a Jacksonville defensive line that underwhelmed in every single sense in 2015. Of their eight defensive linemen who played at least 200 snaps, only one (Roy Miller) earned a positive run-defense grade, and only two (Jared Odrick and Ryan Davis) earned positive pass-rush grades. Jackson arrives having generated more pressure against guards than any other player in 2015, and with positive grades in run-defense for three straight seasons with the Broncos.
2. Sean Smith, CB, Raiders
The Raiders found a diamond in the rough at corner with the in-season acquisition of David Amerson after he was waived by Washington, but opposite him, D.J. Hayden was still a problem for the Raiders. Only six corners earned a lower grade than Hayden last year, who surrendered a passer rating of 100.0 or more for the third straight season to start his career, giving up five touchdowns. Smith sits at the other end of the scale, finishing the season as our 12th-highest graded corner; he surrendered a passer rating in the 80s for the fourth straight season, breaking up eight passes to take his total for the last four seasons to 35.
3. Mitchell Schwartz, RT, Chiefs
When Von Miller broke into the league in 2011, he routinely had some of his least-productive games against the Chiefs, earning game grades below +1.0 (0.0 is average) in five of his first seven games against Kansas City. In his last three games against the Chiefs, though, Miller has earned a combined +9.0 cumulative overall grade, with 17 total pressures (four sacks, three hits, 10 hurries). Charged with reversing those fortunes for the Chiefs is the man responsible for holding Miller to the lowest pass-rush grade of his career, Mitchell Schwartz. Against the Browns this year, Miller earned a -2.0 pass-rush game grade, with Schwartz charged with allowing only one hurry. Schwartz has earned a positive grade in pass protection in each of his four years in the league, and offers an enormous upgrade over Jah Reid and the departed Donald Stephenson.
4. Alex Mack, C, Falcons
The Falcons’ offensive line improved dramatically in 2015, with left tackle Jake Matthews among the league’s most-improved players. The exception to that improvement was at center, where Mike Person was the weak point of the entire line, and one of the weaker starters in the league. If Mack can return to his pre-injury self in 2016, the Falcons have acquired one of the league’s best and most consistent centers of the last six years. Even though he wasn’t at his highest level for the Browns this past season, particularly in pass protection, Mack is still be a comfortable upgrade for the Falcons’ offensive line, and offers a veteran leader on the line for Matt Ryan, as well.
5. Damon Harrison, NT, Giants
No Giants’ defensive tackle earned a positive grade in run defense last season, and as a result, they surrendered a subpar 3.8 yards per carry on A-gap carries, while allowing opponents’ to convert on 20 of the 22 third- or fourth-and-short situations they defended. Harrison immediately plugs both of those gaps as the leading light of a Jets’ defense that stuffed nearly 50 percent of opponents’ short yardage plays, and allowed 3.1 yards per carry through the A-gaps, third best in the league last year. Harrison’s 117 stops against the run are the fourth-most for any interior defender over the last four seasons.
6. Danny Trevathan, ILB, Bears
The Bears invested heavily at edge defender over the last couple of seasons, and it paid off in 2015, but inside linebacker was still a glaring weakness for them. Second-year linebacker Christian Jones was solid in coverage, but along with Shea McClellin, provided sparing resistance to opposing ground attacks, with the duo ranking 74th and 85th against the run in our grades at the position. Paired with Jones, Trevathan will give the Bears two strong coverage defenders at linebacker (so important in today’s NFL), while Trevathan will also bring some much-needed weight against the run from the second level. Trevathan’s 11.9 run-stop percentage ranked fifth among inside linebackers last season.
7. Olivier Vernon, DE, Giants
The Giants went all-in on the defensive side of the ball and will look for Vernon to improve upon the pressure that Robert Ayers provided over the last two seasons in the Big Apple. On a per-rush basis, Ayers was one of the league’s most productive pass-rushers during 2014 and 2015 (15 sacks, 25 hits, 54 hurries; 630 pass rushes), but Vernon played 10 more snaps than Ayers managed over two seasons in 2015 alone. If Vernon can replicate his eight-week stretch to end 2015, when he was the league’s most productive pass-rusher, he will not only provide an immediate impact for the Giants, but also justify his enormous contract.
8. Travis Benjamin, WR, Chargers
After the retirement of Malcom Floyd, the Chargers lost the man who accounted for 50 percent of their deep catches by wide receivers since Vincent Jackson left for Tampa Bay prior to the 2012 season. The Chargers desperately needed to replace Floyd’s presence to keep the downfield element of the offense open for Philip Rivers, and Benjamin will at least provide that impact, even if he will do it in a different style than Floyd. Benjamin finished 16th in the league last year with 363 yards on deep targets, catching all eight of his catchable targets, and converting four of them into touchdowns.
9. Brandon Brooks, G, Eagles
As recently as 2014, the interior trio of the offensive line was one of the strengths of the Eagles’ roster, and one of the best in the league. After the departure of Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans, however, this unit was a glaring weakness, and Jason Kelce couldn’t pick up the pieces by himself for Allen Barbre and Matt Tobin. Brooks joins the Eagles coming off of his worst season in three years, but that was still good enough to earn a positive overall grade. At his best (2013 and 2014), Brooks provides solid pass protection, but crucially brings back the consistent, physical style (with occasional dominance) that was the calling card of the Eagles’ ground play when Mathis and Herremans manned the guard spots on either side of Kelce.
10. Chris Ivory, RB, Jaguars
Jacksonville was extremely poor in short-yardage situations last season. Only five teams ran more than the Jags from inside their opponent’s 2-yard line, but the Jaguars only scored twice on 13 attempts. Jacksonville was similarly inefficient running on third/fourth-and-short, though they didn’t try it often (converted 3-of-12 attempts). Ivory was not automatic by any means for the Jets, but going 6-of-16 on third/fourth-and-short, along with going three-of-nine inside the opponent’s 2-yard line is at least a notable upgrade. It’s a steep price for a short-yardage back, but Ivory provides a demonstrable upgrade over Toby Gerhart.