Best free-agent signings since 2007 in terms of production and value
With the franchise tag deadline behind us, all attention turns to free agency next week. In the past weeks, we’ve previewed free agency for each team, as well as named the top free agents at each position. Now that the combine is in the books, all eyes will be on the money and fast and furious player movement associated with NFL free agency. Even though you as a fan, and the teams themselves, have likely already identified who would be a great addition to the roster, let us look back at some of the best free-agent signings of the PFF era and see if there are themes we can apply to this offseason.
What makes a good free-agent signing, and how can teams avoid ending up at the bottom of the standings even after breaking the bank in free agency? Before those are questions examined, we must first remember why the player is a free agent in the first place. Typically, this occurs in one of a couple scenarios:
– The team’s salary cap situation is congested and the player’s price tag becomes too high. For example, this happened last season with Ndamukong Suh, and could possibly happen this offseason with the Broncos. They re-signed defensive lineman Derek Wolfe (92.2 overall grade in 2015) to a four-year, $36.7 million extension ($17.5 million guaranteed), and also franchise tagged Von Miller. With other contracts that need worked out, Denver could possibly lose another emerging player in Wolfe’s defensive line-mate Malik Jackson (87.6).
– Secondarily (and probably the main reason), free agents hit the open market because their current team has watched them practice and play for a year (or multiple years) and has determined the player is replaceable. Earlier this offseason, the Atlanta Falcons cut two defensive starters in SS William Moore (61.1) and LB Justin Durant (50.3) because the production just did not match the price.
Numerous factors can determine how a free agent fits and plays with a new team, and while most of these seem like common sense, we all know teams with money to spend and tickets to sell will ignore them. Here are just a few such factors:
– Scheme fit: For example, a 3-4 DE going to a team that plays a 4-3 scheme doesn’t make for a great fit, nor does a CB who’s excelled in primarily man coverage switching to a zone-heavy scheme.
– Age versus role: If a team is signing a veteran over 30 years old to be a heavy snap-count player, in particularly a non-lineman who depends on speed, look to get diminishing returns on production, or even injury issues. A common theme arises on the list below as, other than Peyton Manning, all players were 30 years old or less when they signed as a free agent.
– Positional value: Certain teams value certain positions differently, and making sure you are deep at a position might trump the financial risk. For example, the Patriots’ signing of TE Scott Chandler (70.7) this past offseason (two-year, $5.3 million) was a great value signing, given how they use multiple TEs for formation variability, and also as insurance in case of a Rob Gronkowski (96.7) injury.
Now, considering the factors just listed, among others, let us examine the best free agent signings of the PFF era* through two categories: most productive and great value deals.
*Examined signings since 2007; the associated cumulative grades are either for the player’s tenure with the team, or the life of the initial contract, and do include playoff games.
Most productive signings
Cameron Wake, DE
Signed: 2009 with Dolphins for four years, $4.9 million ($1 million signing bonus) (Signed subsequent four-year, $49 million deal in 2012)
Age when signed: 27
PFF cumulative grade (during contract/time with team): +242.8
A sought-after free agent after leaving the CFL following the 2008 season, Wake eventually signed with the Dolphins and hasn’t looked back, amassing 78 total quarterback sacks, 106 hits, 237 hurries, and 180 stops in seven seasons. In 2010 and 2011, he finished fourth and first respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers in overall grade, and when the Dolphins switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme, Wake proceeded to finish first, fourth, and first in overall grade among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012, 2013 and 2014, respectively. His pass-rushing productivity has been sixth, third, first, second, and second among his position group from 2010 to 2014. While Wake’s future with the Dolphins is in question after a season-ending injury in 2015, his tenure in Miami has been a historically good one.
Evan Mathis, G
Signed: 2011 with Eagles for one year, $735,000 (Signed subsequent five-year, $25.5 million deal in 2012)
Age when signed: 29
PFF cumulative grade (during contract/time with team): +178.2
The first of three members on our list that is a newly-minted Super Bowl champion after signing a one-year contract with Denver this season (89.6 overall grade, third highest-graded guard in 2015), Mathis’ performance as a Philadelphia Eagle from 2011 to 2014 is what garnered the primary recognition. Prior to that, though, Mathis was truly under the radar. Originally a third-round choice by the Panthers in 2005, Mathis didn’t really see the field much until 2009 with the Bengals (648 snaps, +25.9 cumulative grade), when he was the 12th-highest graded guard despite, the low snap-count numbers. After playing just 115 snaps in 2010, Mathis signed the one-year deal with the Eagles. Mathis blossomed in Philadelphia, turning in three consecutive seasons as our top-ranked guard, and only fell to sixth in 2014 when injuries limited him to nine games.
Justin Smith, DE
Signed: 2008 with 49ers for six years, $45 million ($20 million guaranteed)
Age when signed: 28
PFF cumulative grade (during contract/time with team): +121.9
Chosen with the fourth-overall pick in the 2001 draft, Justin Smith had seven very solid seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals before moving on and spending the final seven seasons of his career as a 49er. After a solid initial season in San Francisco (+3.6 overall cumulative grade, seven sacks, and 52 total QB pressures), Smith dominated the three-year period from 2009 to 2011, finishing first, second, and first overall among defensive interior players in overall grade and pass-rushing productivity. His production peaked in 2011 as the 49ers fell one win shy of making the Super Bowl, and he finished (including two playoff games) with nine sacks and 92 total QB pressures. Though his pass-rush numbers declined over the final three seasons, Smith was still very productive, and the epitome of a great free-agent signing.
Damien Woody, OT
Signed: 2008 with Jets for five years, $25.5 million ($11 million guaranteed)
Age when signed: 30
PFF cumulative grade (during contract/time with team): +122.9
Drafted in the first round in 1999 by the Patriots, Damien Woody won two Super Bowls and went to a Pro Bowl as a center. Then, in 2004, Woody signed as a free agent with Detroit, where he primarily played guard. Even though he only played a handful of games at tackle, the Jets signed Woody to be their right tackle, and it worked out quite well. In 2008, Woody finished his first full season at right tackle as the highest-graded tackle (+46.8 cumulative season grade) and third-best tackle in pass-blocking efficiency (PBE). He continued his stellar play the next two seasons as well, finishing as the third-highest graded tackle (+46.7 grade) and third again in PBE in 2009, and then the 10th-highest graded tackle and seventh in PBE in 2010. Woody’s last season in New York ended with a torn Achilles, and he retired in the summer of 2011, but the Jets certainly got great value in his three seasons.
Peyton Manning, QB
Signed: 2012 with Broncos for five years, $96 million ($18 million guaranteed)
Age when signed: 36
PFF cumulative grade (during contract/time with team): +113.1
Now a two-time Super Bowl champion, it is yet to be seen if Peyton Manning will ride off into the sunset with his records and legacy cemented. Let’s not examine this free-agent signing, though, through the lens of Peyton Manning and all that has surrounded him the past two seasons (injuries, below-average performance, arm strength issues, etc.). In the big picture, the Denver Broncos signed a veteran QB that, in his four years with the team, resulted in two Super Bowl appearances (with one Super Bowl victory), four playoff appearances, and one of the best statistical QB seasons ever (2013). That stat line in and of itself is unparalleled, and Manning’s presence has been worth the deal.
Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, DEs
Signed: 2013 with Seahawks for one year, $5 million and two years, $13 million, respectively; Each signed subsequent four-year, $28.5 million deals
Age when signed: 27 (both)
PFF cumulative grade (during contract/time with team): +132.1 and +71.8, respectively
While the Legion of Boom, Beast Mode, and Russell Wilson have gotten the majority of the Seahawks’ headlines for their recent period of excellence, these two signings in 2013 were the true missing pieces that elevated Seattle’s defense from very good to dominant. From our perspective, Bennett has been the better individual player, but let’s examine the pair to see just how dominant they have been. Over the past three years, Bennett and Avril have combined for 53 sacks and 402 total QB pressures. Just this past season, they combined for 22 sacks—more than the entire Atlanta Falcons’ team (20). For our pass-rushing productivity statistic, both Bennett and Avril have been no lower than seventh in each of the past three seasons among 4-3 DEs, and this past season, both were also in the top-five in run-stop percentage. The cost to productivity ratio cannot be matched for these two signings.
Elvis Dumervil, OLB
Signed: 2013 with Ravens for five years, $35 million ($12 million guaranteed)
Age when signed: 29
PFF cumulative grade (during contract/time with team): +63.3
Oh, that pesky fax machine. A late fax had Dumervil go from a restructured contract with the Denver Broncos to being a free agent, but Denver’s loss was Baltimore’s gain. In his three seasons with the Ravens, Dumervil has produced 38 sacks and 189 total QB pressures, and while he has never been stout against the run, his grades against the run in Baltimore have been better than at any point in his career. However, his softer run grades are heavily outweighed by his production as a pass rusher.
Delanie Walker, TE
Signed: 2013 with Titans for four years, $17.5 million ($8.6 million guaranteed)
Age when signed: 28
PFF cumulative grade (during contract/time with team): +33.9
A far cry from the player that dropped 11-of-48 targets in a part-time role in 2012 with the 49ers, Walker has turned himself into a fine all-around tight end. While he’s earned a positive grade in all three of his seasons in Tennessee, 2015 was his true breakout year, hauling in 94-of-130 targets for over 1,000 yards, while tying for the league-lead among tight ends with 16 missed tackles forced. He was the highest-graded tight end over the last 14 weeks of 2015, and finished the season tied for third among tight ends with 2.24 yards per route run.
Sean Smith, CB
Signed: 2013 with Chiefs for three years, $18 million ($11 million guaranteed)
Age when signed: 25
PFF cumulative grade (during contract/time with team) = +33.7
The Chiefs have been an upper-echelon defensive team in the three seasons since acquiring Smith with a team-friendly contract to man their right cornerback spot. While he’s earned a positive grade in each of his three seasons in Kansas City, he was a real standout in 2014, where he finished fifth among cornerbacks in overall cumulative grade (+19.5), second in coverage grade (+18.6), and 13th in yards per coverage snap. His steady play in 2015 provided a complement to standout rookie Marcus Peters, helping the Chiefs hold opposing quarterbacks to the second-worst QB rating (76.0) in the league. Retaining Smith this offseason will not come as cheaply—although losing Smith may cost the Chiefs even more.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR
Signed: 2014 with Broncos for 3 years, $18 million ($6 million guaranteed)
Age when signed: 27
PFF cumulative grade (during contract/time with team): +32.3
Sanders has proven to be a perfect, and financially-responsible, alternative for the departed Eric Decker for the Broncos. His production took a bit of a dip in 2015, but he still finished with the 17th-best grade (+12.1) and the 12th-best yards per route run (2.10) this past season, helping the Broncos win their third Super Bowl title. In 2014, Sanders finished eighth in both total grade (+18.5) and yards per route run (2.45), and Peyton Manning had a 119.6 passer rating when throwing in his direction, fifth-best among NFL WRs.
Jabaal Sheard, DE
Signed: 2015 with Patriots for two years, $11 million ($5.5 million guaranteed)
Age when signed: 26
PFF cumulative grade (during contract/time with team): +39.1
Despite starting just one game all season, the inexpensive Sheard was nothing short of phenomenal in his first frame as a Patriot, grading positively in every game he played in. His pass-rushing productivity of 14.1 was tops among 4-3 defensive ends in 2015, accumulating eight sacks, five hits and 45 hurries on 322 pass rush snaps. He was almost as solid against the run, finishing fourth among 4-3 defensive ends with a 10.2 run-stop percentage, producing 19 stops on 186 run snaps. He added six hurries and seven stops in two playoff games, including five hurries against the Chiefs and six stops against the Broncos.
Patrick Chung, S
Signed: 2014 with Patriots for one year, $1.1 million (then subsequent three-year, $8.2 million in 2015)
Age when signed: 26
PFF cumulative grade (during contract/time with team): +28.3
Chung has been a top-10 graded safety in his two seasons since returning to the Patriots after a year in Philadelphia. His eight passes defensed in 2015 bested all safeties during the regular season, and his combined tackling efficiency (12.1) and pass-rushing productivity (21.4) finished eighth and 10th in the NFL, respectively. The trio of Chung, Devin McCourty, and Duron Harmon was arguably the best in the league in 2015, and Chung’s contributions come not only from his strong play, but also his economical salary, which helped free up cash to retain McCourty (five years, $47.5 million) this past offseason.
Vonta Leach, FB
Signed: 2011 with Ravens for three years, $11 million ($6 million guaranteed)
Age when signed: 29
PFF cumulative grade (during contract/time with team): +36.6
After finishing with the third-highest cumulative season grade among fullbacks (+9.8) in 2010 for Houston (helping lead Arian Foster to the rushing title that year), Leach was the highest-graded fullback in the league in 2011 (+16.7) and 2012 (+20.2) for Baltimore—and by a wide margin in both seasons. Known more for his blocking (+18.0 and +18.9 in 2011 and 2012, respectively), Leach only dropped four passes in his three seasons in Baltimore on 62 targets.