5 biggest free-agency losers after one week
With one week of free agency down, we’ve seen some teams and players come away as big winners, while others haven’t fared so well. We’ve seen teams struggle to get deals done and lose some of their top talent, while some players have found the market to not be quite what they thought it would be. Sam Monson covered the winners here, so now let’s take a look at the biggest losers in free agency so far:
1. Denver Broncos
Coming off a Super Bowl win is never easy. For all the highs of the victory parade, the lows of free agency are just around the corner, with the talent that just won the Lombardi trophy always likely to get some big-time offers on the open market.
It started with Peyton Manning retiring. Sure, Manning struggled in 2015, and that’s perhaps being kind, but it’s never ideal to lose your starting quarterback. Worse for Denver, it put them in an incredibly difficult position with backup, and potential starter, Brock Osweiler. Seven career starts and 11 touchdowns into a four-year career, Denver was faced with the proposition of paying him like a top-15 quarterback. That’s madness for a player with such limited experience, and is similar to the leap of faith teams picking in the top five of the NFL draft used to be faced with before the rookie wage scale came into play. Denver opted to not go above their original offer, and there’s something to be applauded about that, but it still leaves them in the position of having Mark Sanchez as their starting quarterback as of right now.
That’s not an issue for Denver though, right? I mean, they are just coming off a Super Bowl victory where Peyton Manning graded negatively in all but one playoff game, thanks to the strength of their defense. Well, that’s true, but this offseason hasn’t just seen them lose their top two quarterbacks, but also several high-profile defenders. Up front, Malik Jackson heads to Jacksonville after two impressive seasons in a row as an interior pass rusher. He racked up seven sacks, 12 hits, and 56 hurries in 2015, including the playoffs, and that won’t be easy to replace. They also lost linebacker Danny Trevathan, who signed with the Chicago Bears. Our sixth-highest graded 3-4 inside linebacker in 2015, his departure leaves a substantial hole at linebacker. On top of all of that, there’s still a strong possibility that they lose both running back C.J. Anderson, who has signed an offer sheet with the Miami Dolphins, and left guard Evan Mathis, who remains unsigned. All that adds up to a worrying start to the defense of their crown.
2. Cleveland Browns
Heading into free agency, the Browns must have known that it wouldn’t be easy to keep their top free agents, but ideally they’d have been able to keep at least one of either RT Mitchell Schwartz, C Alex Mack, WR Travis Benjamin, or S Tashaun Gipson. It wasn’t to be, however, and it sees the team picking No. 2 overall in the draft now has four additional holes to fill after the first wave of free agency. Mack was an expected loss, and after drafting Cameron Erving in the first round last year, it would make sense to see him take over in the middle of the offensive line. He struggled at guard when he saw the field, but was always viewed as a better center.
Schwartz is a tougher loss, coming off a season where he was our highest-graded right tackle. He allowed 43 total pressures in 2015, and heads to the AFC West to try to block Von Miller off the edge for the Chiefs. It was always going to be harder to keep Benjamin, who showcased his big-play ability by catching all eight catchable balls thrown his way 20 yards or more downfield, for 363 yards and four scores. As hard as it might have been to keep him around, the rest of the Browns’ roster combined for just four receptions on deep passes a year ago. Gipson struggled in 2015, but was our seventh-highest graded safety in coverage in 2014. It leaves a team who came into the offseason seeking big improvement already on their back foot, trying to replace some of the better players on the roster from 2015.
3. Ryan Fitzpatrick
Perhaps when the dust settles and he signs a deal it won’t be the case, but after a week that saw Brock Osweiler turn seven starts into a $72 million contract, and the Philadelphia Eagles paying Chase Daniel $7 million per year to compete with Sam Bradford for the starting quarterback job, Ryan Fitzpatrick is the man on the outside looking in.
He definitely struggled in 2015, with just seven games where he posted a positive passing grade, despite a 31-to-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio. That being said, he looked much better in 2014, and won’t turn 34 until November, so there’s reason to believe he could at least be a serviceable starter in 2016.
At this stage, his best bets for landing a starting job appear to be returning to the New York Jets, or signing with Cleveland or Denver. Both the Broncos and Browns have been reported to have more interest in trading for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, though, so it wouldn’t come as much of a shock to see him re-sign with the Jets on a short-term deal after missing out on the big money of some of his fellow quarterbacks.
4. Andy Dalton
The Cincinnati Bengals have generally fared well enough in free agency this year, re-signing cornerback Adam Jones (83.3) and safety George Iloka (82.6), plus there is the possibility that they could still bring back safety Reggie Nelson (84.2) to see them retain their three highest-graded free agents on the offseason. However, they have lost two receivers for Andy Dalton, and while they still have A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert, losing both Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu does hurt somewhat. Jones broke out in 2013 before missing all of 2014 through injury, but has shown good ability after the catch in each of his past two full seasons, forcing 15 missed tackles on 59 receptions in 2013 and 12 missed tackles on 69 receptions in 2015. Sanu has never quite lived up to the hype, and dropped 15 of the 74 catchable passes thrown his way in 2014, but was used on trick plays and had shown the ability to throw a pretty good ball downfield on wide-receiver reverse passes.
5. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins have actually replaced the big-time player that they lost, but at this point, it’s about whether or not he can replace the production that has departed.
Olivier Vernon signed a five-year, $85 million contract with $40 million guaranteed with the New York Giants. The Dolphins had originally placed the transition tag on Vernon, but rescinded the offer after bringing Mario Williams into the fold. Williams struggled in 2015, and this move has the potential to backfire on the Dolphins, with the former No. 1 overall selection of the 2006 NFL draft coming off his lowest-graded season since PFF began grading in 2007. He produced just 36 total pressures over the course of the season, while Vernon racked up that in the final five games of the 2015 season alone.
The caveat here is that, right now, the Dolphins look like they’ve taken a gamble on paying less for a player like Williams, but they could wind up looking like the smart ones after all. Vernon was our highest-graded 4-3 defensive end in 2015, but almost all of his cumulative grade came in the final eight games of the season. It was one of the most impressive eight-game runs ever seen in the PFF era, but it’s understandable why the Dolphins weren’t willing to make such an expensive gamble.
Miami is also on the verge of replacing running back Lamar Miller with C.J. Anderson, after the restricted free agent signed an offer sheet. Should Denver not match the offer, it would lessen the blow of losing Miller, who at 85.2, was our second-highest-graded running back on the market, with Anderson (71.1) tied for 11th. Anderson is a great scheme fit for new head coach Adam Gase, but the Broncos could still throw a wrench in the works here.