10 best free-agent signings this season

Which 2016 offseason investments have paid off? Mike Renner takes a look at how the best deals have panned out.

| 6 months ago
(Steve Nehf/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

(Steve Nehf/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

10 best free-agent signings this season


More money was thrown around this offseason than ever before, but who spent it wisely? That has always been the worrisome side of free agency, spending big money for a player who either doesn’t fit or isn’t worth what you’re now paying him. The following 10 guys—all signed during the 2016 free-agency period—are already doing their best to live up to their contracts, however, as they’re making a sizable impact on their new teams.

Note: Only free agents who changed teams this offseason were considered.

1. Casey Hayward, CB, San Diego Chargers

In a bloated cornerback market last spring, the Chargers managed to sign arguably the most productive CB this season for a three-year, $15.3 million deal. Hayward’s seven interceptions lead the NFL, and his eight pass breakups rank 10th. What’s been most impressive about Hayward is that his production has come split wide, as opposed to in the slot, where he was pigeonholed for most of his time in Green Bay.

2. Kelechi Osemele, G, Oakland Raiders

Osemele has done as much as a guard feasibly can do to live up to a $10+ million a year deal this season. He’s currently Pro Football Focus’ second-highest-graded guard and has only allowed seven total pressures all season long, with no sacks. At only 27 years old and locked up for four more seasons after this one, the Raiders would make this deal again in a heartbeat.

3. Eric Weddle, S, Baltimore Ravens

With Weddle’s extremely productive recent history, this contract was a slam dunk—at least for this season—as soon as the pen hit the paper. At 31 years old, one might expect Weddle to slow down a tad, but he’s nowhere near prohibitively-aged for a safety in the NFL, and Weddle has proven that in Baltimore. He has earned top-five grades in both coverage and against the run, while his seven combined interceptions and pass breakups are third-most at the position.

4. Janoris Jenkins, CB, New York Giants

I mentioned the bloated cornerback market earlier, and Jenkins would certainly qualify as one of the beneficiaries. His five-year, $62.5 million deal is the seventh-highest per-year average at the position, even if though he had never produced a season worthy of a top-10 CB ranking. That is, until now. Jenkins is allowing only 50.6 percent of his targets to be completed this season, and his 10 pass breakups are the third-most in the league.

5. Alex Mack, C, Atlanta Falcons

Center had been a problem spot for Atlanta for quite some time, and instead of continuing to and try develop guys from within, Thomas Dimitroff decided to sign the best center available on the free-agent market. The Pro Bowl center has been everything they could have asked for, grading out among the top-three at the position this season.

6. Jerrell Freeman, LB, Chicago Bears

Freeman’s suspension obviously throws a wrench into things, but prior to that, he was everything the Bears could have wanted for the first 11 weeks of the season. The veteran linebacker was having the best season of his career and was second behind only Luke Kuechly in our position rankings. Freeman still owns the sixth-best run-stop percentage among inside linebackers, and his 18 stops in coverage are fourth-most.

7. Sean Smith, CB, Oakland Raiders

Smith took some considerable lumps early in the season, and at one point, was even benched. Since then, however, few corners in the NFL have been better. Over the first two weeks of the season, he surrendered 250 yards and three touchdowns. In the 11 games since, he’s yielded only 346 yards and one touchdown. The Raiders still have some issues defensively, but they haven’t been because of Smith.

8. Olivier Vernon, DE, New York Giants

Vernon was much maligned early on in his Giants’ career after he notched one sack over the first seven weeks. His seven sacks since, though, have started to quiet the critics. Realistically, Vernon has been consistently productive in PFF’s grading all season long; his 72 total QB pressures (sacks, hits, and hurries combined) are the second-most among edge defenders, and only one behind league-leader Khalil Mack.

9. Damon Harrison, DT, New York Giants

Damon Harrison is the third Giants defender to make the list, as New York’s offseason fueled one of the biggest defensive turnarounds in league history. Harrison may not be adding much as a pass-rusher, but the Giants knew that when they signed him. What he is, though, is hands down the league’s best run-stuffing nose tackle. Harrison’s 16.5 run-stop percentage is the highest of any defensive tackle by a ridiculous 4.5 percentage points.

10. Zach Brown, LB, Buffalo Bills

If you saw Brown finally emerging as a playmaking linebacker in his fifth season in the league, congratulations, you’re smarter than just about every GM in the NFL. Brown was signed for a measly one-year, $1.25 million deal this offseason after his career never quite got off the ground in Tennessee. Blessed with immense physical gifts, Brown was never quite able to translate them to the football field until Rex Ryan got ahold of him. Brown’s 53 total stops are the most of any linebacker in the league, and he’s earned the 14th-highest-grade of any off-ball linebacker this season.

| Senior Analyst

Mike is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has also been featured on The Washington Post, ESPN Insider, and 120 Sports.

  • johnforamerica

    Sooooo… Only defense and OL

    • Joe Doe

      Yeah, I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out how Osweiler didn’t make the list.

      • McGeorge

        Osweiller, and Ryan FitzMagic.
        :-)

        • anon76returns

          FitzMagic didn’t change teams, so he didn’t qualify.
          Osweiller did, and IMO should qualify the Broncos for one of the best FA decisions of the year by declining to match Houston’s offer.

          • McGeorge

            While FitzTragic didn’t change teams, he was a free agent.

            I thought Denver made the correct decision at the time, and then people started ripping John Elway for letting Osweiler go. They should all stand up now and admit they were wrong.

          • crosseyedlemon

            But the Broncos QB situation is still a mess so why should anyone applaud Elway?

          • McGeorge

            Trevor Siemian isn’t horrible, he’s good enough for now. In addition, he may improve as he gains experience. I wouldn’t say their QB situation is a mess. It would be with Mark Sanchez.

            Paxton Lynch may end up being a bust, but if Siemian is so-so then they can contend for first place in their division.

          • Vitor

            Because it’s not a mess tied to a 72 million shit qb

          • crosseyedlemon

            No, it’s just a mess that could prevent Denver from repeating as champions and that should be a higher priority for a GM than shaving the payroll.

          • Brad Barber

            Trevor siemian hasn’t been bad at all. They have the bottom five oline, no run game and no run defense.

          • McGeorge

            Brad,
            I don’t follow Denver, but the 2 games I’ve seen Siemian looked at least OK to me.
            How would you rate him?
            Is he around average?
            What are his weaknesses? (got hurt from sacks?)

          • Rodrigo Campos Pedro

            He reads great,his passes look sharp(even the ones downfield).
            You could already see improvement in the Titans game from the KC game(moving better to deal with pressure,not getting sacked for lots of yards anymore).

          • mormonrock124

            Their QB situation was a mess last year as well and they made moves to invest money in the future of the position instead of big money in free agency. Going back to back isn’t easy, so their moves were smart since the D is still going to be good for a couple more years.

          • crosseyedlemon

            It’s foolish for a GM to assume that a strong defense will remain dominant for another 2 or 3 years. A lot can happen in that time. You need to strike while the iron is hot and capitalize on situations when you have an advantage over the rest of the league. The Broncos have a championship caliber defense and only needed some upgrades on offense to make them a strong candidate for a repeat but Elway dropped the ball and Denver is now fighting just to secure a playoff seed.

          • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

            our team would be significantly worse with oz’ contract on the cap, probably would’ve had to cut talib, and reduce our already limited fa additions on offense

          • mormonrock124

            realistically they were always going to be fighting for a playoff spot this year w/the division improving around them. They kept their core D intact allowing them time to get cap flexibility. Going all in this yr at QB would’ve set them back yrs especially since the QB’s available were not the answer and they still have a legit shot at the playoffs, which they can make a run because of their D.

          • McGeorge

            What did Elway do wrong?
            Siemian is fine as a QB for now. He’s making almost nothing, so teh cap savings pays for Von Miller.

            Should they have signed Osweiller? No.

            They drafted Paxtoon Lynch, so they at least tried to do something. Whether it works out is another question.

            How else could Elway have obtained a good QB?
            Trade up for Jarred Goff or Carson Wentz? It would have cost a lot.
            What free agent QBs should Elway have signed?
            Would Matt Barkley be better than Siemian as a 16 game starter?
            They could have drafted Dak Prescott in the 3rd round, too bad they (and the other 31 teams) can’t read the future.

            I don’t think the Denver QB situation is a mess. They have an average QB, making almost nothing, and thats ok for the next couple of years.
            I’d take Siemian at 450K/year than a slightly better QB at 18MM/year.

            What should Elway have done differently?

          • Dalen Erickson

            I think Elway is a genius. I dont think he did anything wrong. The only thing I he couldve done differently in a perfect world is build a better O-line. If they had perhaps snagged Slauson to play one of the guard spots on a cheap deal, enticing him with the fact he would have a chance at a ring in the twilight of his career. Elway is a master at getting players to take a little less to play on a great team. im a Cowboys fan but I live in Montana so 80% of football fans here are Broncos fans or Hawks fans so Im extremely familiar with Denver, I caught probably 8 of their games so far (plus I watch the 15 minute recap for every game every week on NFL On Demand) so I am unbiased but pretty well informed. Elway is a genius. Siemian is not only better than Brock for the money, he is better period. We have to keep in mind this was basically his rookie debut and he had a sub par o-line minus the great work of Paradis.

          • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

            siemian is clearly better than oz, and at 1/34th the cap charge per year

          • McGeorge

            And he’s younger too.

          • Will H

            Let’s see, they have been a contender every year he has been Gm and they really have had a mess at Qb sine he got there: he has been stop-gapping first with Peyton who was a shadow of himself and then with guys he had to use while paying for the winning D. There are at least 20 other franchises waiting for him if he gets tired of the fans he’s spoiled crabbing about him.

          • Mike

            Meanwhile McBoy……Chiefs win the division or at least finish ahead of the Broncos with may the “Schwartz be with you” who could have been signed by horseface!!!

          • McGeorge

            Who could Elway have signed at QB that would have won the division for them?

            Would they have won if they kept Osweiller? I doubt it.

            What did Elway do wrong?

          • Will H

            Good question. maybe he didn’t polish his
            Super Bowl rings properly to please the fans?

      • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

        because he’s been a downgrade over hoyer/mallet/yates/whoever-else

    • Phong Ta

      What’d you expect, I mean very rarely do teams let good skill position talent walk out the door

      • johnforamerica

        Good point! Hadn’t considered that.

        Although you could argue WRs are the exception.

        • Will H

          Sometime count how many wr’s come out of college EVERY year. Pittsburgh has everyone believing you can develope wrs every year. When only the Steelers have shown an aptitude for actually doing it.

  • Brad Barber

    Fuck yea giants haha

    • Jose velez

      Thay still aint going no we’re

      • Mike Riley

        Huh

        • Brad Barber

          Learn to spell then come back with dumbass comments

      • Seven Costanza

        “Thay still aint going no we’re”? WTF?!!! Either start trolling with spell check on or go back to school, mate.

        • Will H

          He means “nowhere.” Illiterate trump voter.

      • Neo Maxie Zoom Dweebie

        “Ain’t going no we are?” Several English teachers must have given up on you out of sheer frustration.

    • Jose velez

      Giants ain’t going no we’re

      • fuster

        they gwan 2 da playoffs, jerkov

  • crosseyedlemon

    Wasn’t Josh Norman the top guy on this list early in the season? He appears to have crashed even harder than Hillary Clinton.

    • richard greene

      No one voted genius except you, yah voted for Herr Drumpf…. Adolf taught him everything he knows!

      • Will H

        Like anyone could actually teach him anything.

  • russwg1970

    Where is Demarco Murray…?!?

  • Blackfive

    “Vernon was much maligned”

    is that how you guys cover yourselves for being dumbasses? Every Giants’ fan saw his productivity from day 1!

  • Mike

    Problem with these rankings as they lack context. Mitchell Schwartz as a right tackle in the AFC West faces Von MIller, Khalil Mack and Bosa/ Ingram twice a year. You should add at least 5 points to any AFC West right tackle based on the competition. That and the upgrade value that the signing represents. Mitchell vs Stephenson…C’mon Man!!!! Don’t let being good keep you from being great. Challenge served PFF!!!

    • Rodrigo Campos Pedro

      Most position have the same upgrade value.
      Schwartz simply hasn’t been as good as last year,makes no sense to put him on the list.
      He gave Miller his worst game last year,this year,he did as good a job as any of tackle did all year.

  • Felton51

    Nick Fairley?

    • Will H

      The perfect example of why you don’t pay a guy good money for playing that one great pre-free-agent year. He owes Suh at least half that money.

  • GiveNoFuq

    Aikeem Hicks has been a beast for the Bears.

  • https://web.techreanimate.com/ Andrew Elbaneh

    How isn’t Lorenzo Alexander on this list

  • Tyler Hayes

    Lorenzo Alexander was the best free agent signing…the Bills picked him up for $880K and he put up double-digit sacks.

    He and Zach Brown are probably the two best in terms of production…they combine for $2M and have been among the league leaders in sacks and tackles all season long.

    Once again PFF proves to a joke…Leonard Fournette to the Bills, lol, I’m still laughing at that one.

  • Dalen Erickson

    Dead honest here, i really had huge expectations for Zach Brown. He had a stellar rookie year for the Titans and his measurables are more like that of a safety than a LB. I knew if he could stay healthy he would be a pro bowl caliber player. I finally got something right. I wanted Dallas to sign him as soon as we knew McClain would be suspended.
    I also have to say, for the value, Lorenzo Alexander was the best signing period. They got him for under a million to assist on special teams and rotate in a bit as a pass rusher due to so many injuries in the bills front 7. What a comeback. For a guy to get, what was it, more sacks in 7 games than he had in his entire 11 or 12 year career? Thats pretty much unheard of. Meanwhile still being one of the best special teams gunners and somehow stays fresh in his 12th season or whatever it is.

  • Mike

    Anquan Boldin.

    • Will H

      AND Marvin Jones. Ask Stafford.

  • Kamal Hillard

    The “Big Blue Wrecking Crew”D 2 SB 51! Go Giants!