5 biggest free-agency losers after one week

Gordon McGuinness takes a look at five teams and players whose free-agency fortunes haven't been friendly.

| 9 months ago
(Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)

(Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)

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.

| Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst

Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.

  • Adam

    Disagree with Dalton can draft two comparable WRs would have been much more hamstrung if they signed one or both at the contract level they were signed at.

    • dnkw

      Agreed – it’s not as if we’ve lost our #1 & #2 receivers here.

      • LostAlone

        It wasn’t terrible as such but loosing players who know the system and the QB is certainly a blow. No, those guys weren’t number 1s but they proved their worth and forced defenses to cover them which freed up Green from double teams and put Eifert in good match ups. Sure, you can bring in new guys but that means breaking in two rookies. Even blue chip rookies (who the Bengals are drafting too low to get anyway) are still rookies and you don’t want to be banking on them especially not multiple ones in the same position group.

        • dnkw

          Agreed it’s a blow – was more responding to the article’s suggestion that AD’s the 4th biggest loser in FA.

  • Lane Trujillo

    Disagree that Denver is a loser by not paying a QB who has played 7 games $18m a season. I wouldn’t say for not paying Malik Jackson $42m guaranteed are they a loser either. Malik played between Von and Ware and managed 5.5 sacks last season and 14 sacks in three years. He is a run stopper but Wolfe has fewer snaps, more sacks and more tackles (fewer snaps because he was suspended). Trevathan played like a stud and deserves to get paid, but every player the Broncos have had in that position have produced great numbers. Denver let all of them walk and easily found a replacement. Denver’s philosophy has been to not overspend, draft depth and use the next man up scenario.

    • Jack Casey

      The Broncos lost key players. Now I don’t blame them for not paying the price their guys got paid, but they still play some good guys.

    • Tito Puente

      You can use whatever logic you want, the Broncos lost their top two quarterbacks and two of the best players on their defense — a defense that carried them to a title, you gonna pretend you’re glad it happened?

      If the Warriors ‘refused to overpay’ Steph Curry because there was no salary cap and he was asking for $10 billion a year, they probably made the right decision, but they’d still be ‘losers’ in free agency if they lost the best player on the planet and gave away their chances of repeating as champs.

      Right?

      And you say 14 sacks in three years like that’s a low total for an interior lineman in a 3-4, you’re wrong. Interior linemen do the dirty work, the edge rushers get the glory, that’s how it works in a 3-4.. (Sounds like you know more about the Broncos thrifty fiscal plan than you do their defense?)

      fyi…

      “Jackson has been a top-10 interior pass rusher each of the past two seasons, and is only 26 years old. Jackson’s 60 total pressures a year ago were almost double the team leader for the Jaguars in 2015 (Clemons with 34). Jackson led the NFL in pressures when lined up on the inside shade of an offensive tackle.”

      “The Broncos’ balance on the defensive line is what really stands out. DEs Malik Jackson (86.1) and Derek Wolfe (90.1) finished 17th and 10th, respectively, amongst defensive interiors (DI), but have different strengths. Jackson recorded the seventh-highest pass rush grade amongst DIs (88.1), while Wolfe finished with the sixth-highest run defense grade (90.9).”

      • Lane Trujillo

        Two of the best players on their defense? You’re joking right? Did you forget about Von Miller, Ware, TJ Ward, Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr? Seriously. Sure they lost a middle linebacker that had great numbers but we’ve replaced the middle 3 of the past 4 years. Malik played well but I wouldn’t call him the best defensive player.

        FTR, I would have loved to keep both Malik and Travethan, but not at the money they got. Our salary cap simply cannot afford them at those numbers.

        Yes we lost PFM and Brock, who are technically our “best” QB’s. With that said PFM was ranked 29 last season and Brock as 20. So we didn’t lose a top 20 QB and we won the Super Bowl. That shows you how little we relied on the QB. I loved PFM, but his time has come. He can’t make that middle to long throw any longer. His mind is still sharp and the best in the game. Brock has 7 NFL games under his belt. He is not worth $18m a season. He was over drafted in the 2nd Round by Elway, most teams had him in the 4-5 rounds. I don’t think he is NFL starter worthy but Trevor Siemien had by far the strongest arm in Broncos training camp last season (the only practices open to the public). Not crazy on Sanchez, but for $7m, he is cheap for a veteran backup. I think the Broncos will end up with Kap when it is all said and done. Broncos are stuck on a 3rd round pick, but the problem is that their 3rd round is the final pick of the round making it essentially a 4th round pick. By April 1st, the deal will be done.

        Denver will be bringing in their defensive depth to fill Malik’s absence. They will be rebuilding their offensive line to players that are suited for a zone scheme. Vasquez was built for a power scheme and the reason he was cut. Mathis played great in run blocking but was a straight liability in pass protection. Clady will restructure, they’ll have 2nd year Ty Sambrailo on the right tackle. Max Garcia will replace Mathis. He actually outplayed Mathis several times last season.

        • Tito Puente

          Can you skip the bloviated obfuscation, and get to the part where losing these four players didn’t hurt your team?

  • scotty mike

    losing talent always hurts though. WR in round 1 seems very possible, which is fine

  • McGeorge

    1. Just because Fitzpatrick doesn’t get a ridiculous contract like Osweiler, doesn’t make him a loser. He’ll still get overpaid at 10MM (or whatever he ends up with). Just because someone overpays for a player, doesn’t mean the other players had a bad free agency.

    2. Denver won the Super Bowl and had players with expiring contracts. They can’t keep all of them. Does that make them losers? IF you say yes, then I disagree with your definition. Elway correctly let players leave, without over paying. He correctly let Osweiller leave for that insane salary the Texans offered. The only move Elway made that I don’t like is getting Mark Sanchez. He is awful, and they won’t make the playoffs with him.

    3. Cleveland is wisely not wasting money. And you don’t resign your own free agents at top dollar either. They cut Manziel. They just need to draft better. I don’t think Cleveland has had a bad off season.

    4. The Eagles moved salary cap problems /overpaid players off their roster and managed to get something for them. Plus they resigned some good players very early, at good prices. In general, I think they did ok. We’ll have to see how Bradford and Chase Daniel work out.
    Maybe the Eagles can trade Bradford to Denver. I’d rather have him than Sanchez.

    I’d say the Giants over spent, I peg them as a free agency loser.
    The Texans are using wishful thinking, paying Osweiler, hoping he’ll be a good QB.
    The Dolphins spent a lot too. They are an off season loser.

    • Jay

      The Dolphins spent a lot? They got a more productive player, assuming he plays pre-Rex, for half the price that Olivier Vernon received. Continue to follow the negative narrative that people use against Miami.

      • McGeorge

        Miami got a washed up player.
        The Eagles were happy to trade with them too.

        I don’t think Miami had a good off season.

        • bc

          Less than one year Philly fans were doing cartwheels for Maxwell and Kiko – just because they didn’t work out under Chip Kelly and his fraudulent ystem, these players are no good? Miami got 2 potential starters (which is all a draft pick is) AND still has 13th pick

    • LostAlone

      Saying ‘Cleveland just need to draft better’ is a mix of totally obvious and completely idiotic. Yes, obviously they need some draft picks to work out for them; but what exactly would you suggest they do that they haven’t done before? They’ve had hideous luck with the draft but that’s all it is; luck. The best scouts and testing in the world said Ryan Leaf was a world beating QB. Look how that turned out. You can’t assume anything in the draft and that’s why you absolutely have to keep hold of your high quality players in free agency; so that you aren’t just throwing your team on the backs of unknown talent.

      Saving money does nothing for Cleveland right now. It’s not like they are going to take everyone in the stadium out for an ice cream. Sure, they shouldn’t be taking on huge, stupid, useless contracts just because they have money to burn but they had four quality starters just walk out the door with no plan to replace them. That is not a smart move. That is not something that simply ‘drafting better’ can remedy.

      • McGeorge

        They had “hideous Luck” because they had an unqualified front office.
        Taking Manziel in the first round/ They should have looked at his character and decided if he was mentally cut out to be an NFL QB and leader.
        I can over look a bad draft or two, but if you bust year after year, then you are doing something wrong.
        Look at the NY Jets drafting when Rex Ryan was the head coach (he had a lot of influence) and Mike Tannenbaum was the GM (he is a cap guy not a football guy).
        In 4 years (2009-2013) they had 1 very good player (Mo Wilkerson). Other than that they had a couple of marginal players. 4 years of drafting = 1 player? That’s not just bad luck, that’s a poor front office.

        You don’t ever over pay players or pay top money unless you are all in for a deep playoff run. Going 8-8 or 7-9 is the same, you are mediocre and treading water. Better to save the cap money and roll it forward to the future. Saving money by not resigning players over 30 to top contracts is a good strategy because having them has minimal impact on the teams chances of making the playoffs. look at the Seahawks. They had a strong team (still do) because they drafted well, and were able to extend some players at generally favorable terms. IF you wait until the players contract is up to negotiate, you are paying top dollar which is usually bad planning.

  • T. Kothe

    I think the viewpoint on Denver is too short-sighted. Yes, I realize it’s grades after one week of FA. Doesn’t mean you can’t take both a short and long term view of the impact of the moves that were made.

    Does Osweiler leaving hurt the team? Yeah, definitely. But not as bad as paying him $18 million/year based on seven starts would hurt. Does losing Jackson hurt? Yeah. But while he is an excellent player he was not a critical player for Denver. With the rest of the front 7 almost completely intact and a deep DL draft, letting him get his well deserved payday elsewhere was a wise move for the Broncos. Ditto for Trevathan. Love the dude and the heart he plays with, but ILB has never been a premier position for Elway, and Todd Davis and Corey Nelson both have legitimate shots at being a quality starter in his place.

    So QB is certainly an issue, but I don’t know that it’s fair to give the Broncos a grade on it yet other than “Incomplete”. Elway has even said that they’re not done making moves in that area, and there ought to be some recognition that the outcome is still pending. On the defense, the Broncos have more than enough talent remaining to bring two new starters up to speed while maintaining high quality play. Especially with arguably the best trio of cornerbacks in the league locked down for four more years, and ditto for the best and deepest outside pass rushing unit in the league.

    And all of that, aside from the last sentence or two, is short term thinking that’s not worried about what comes beyond 2016. But what does come then? Well, the Broncos actually have the most 2017 cap space of any team in the league at over $87 million in room if the cap continues rising at its current rate. And they’re in the top 10 teams for 2018 cap space. A chunk of that room in both years will doubtlessly go to Von Miller and retaining some of the 2017 & 2018 FAs, but there will still be plenty left. By not panicking and overspending to retain Jackson or Osweiler, Elway has set the team up beautifully to spend 2016 reloading while still playing the same hard-nosed, competitive defensive football and then head into 2017 with cap space and a highly talented roster…and, possibly, a solid answer at QB depending on how things play out. That’s a great combination. As Elway stated a couple of years ago, he’s been building the team “to win from now on”.

  • Buckeye Finfan

    Calling teams losers because they refuse to overpay is just a way for media to create news. They’d all be saying how we overpaid these players had we retained them at the level of their actual signed contracts. No matter what the team does the media says we’re doing it wrong. I see it all the times as a Dolphin fan.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Isn’t the decision to put the Cleveland Browns on a “losers” list is a bit like trying to decide if gravity exists?

  • Assassin

    I think your story missed out on the biggest loser. That would be the NFL fan who always wanted to go to a game but cant because the ticket prices are too high due to these absolutely mind bending salaries. Thanks NFLPA…

    • cka2nd

      Yeah, it’s all the fault of the union of the players who actually put their bodies, and brains, on the line. Where’s your ire towards the owners, with their personal seat licenses, stadium naming rights and extortionate demands for public funding for new stadiums? You sound like one of those fans who whine about salaries and ticket prices – and welfare and food stamps – but threaten mayhem if a state or city doesn’t throw enough public money at the owners to retain “their” team, no matter the cost.

      • Assassin

        The NFLPA is not the players. It is a Union. The time for Unions is long past us. As for the rest of your rant, I have no problem with the owners making money. Q – did you ever play the game?

        • cka2nd

          No, I did not play the game, although I’m not sure why that matters in this context. And the NFLPA represents its members, the players. Not as well as I would like it to do, but well enough that I haven’t heard a peep about decertification.

          Ah yes, “the time for Unions is long past us.” I’ve been hearing that, and seeing it put into brutal practice, for 35 years, as wages stagnated, working conditions declined and jobs were off-shored. And do you really have no problem with the owner class being worth tens and hundreds of billions of dollars each? Poor J. Paul Getty would be a piker by today’s standards. I imagine you are stunned by the appeal of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

          • Assassin

            The NFLPA is going to do to the NFL what the unions have done to Chicago, Detroit and other major cities where Unions trump the Right to Work. An example, Goodell is on the cusp of having no power to suspend players that have broken the law. The players know they can get away with nearly everything with very little fear of repercussion. The tail is wagging the dog.
            As for my question about you playing – that was in response to your “you sound like one of those fans”. I’m not just a fan – I did play. HS, College and Semi-Pro. I’m a member of my college’s Athletic Hall of Fame. I went to an NFL camp (yes, I was cut) I also coached in college and Semi-Pro. I have a very different view of both the players and the NFLPA from yours.
            As for your statement “seeing it put into brutal practice, for 35 years, as wages stagnated, working conditions declined and jobs were off-shored” – sounds like you’ve been reading too much Huffington Post and Daily Kos. Your statement directly reflects what happens when a union overreaches which is what unions do.
            Do a little more research, think outside your MSNBC box

          • cka2nd

            You may have direct experience as a former football player that I don’t have, being only a fan of more than 40 years, but I speak from direct experience when it comes to unions. For eight years, I was a shop steward and executive council member of a clerical and technical workers union that managed to survive in an open shop. I served on three bargaining teams. After working for nearly nine months from the end of our contract, we went on strike for three weeks; I was the picket captain for half-a-dozen buildings. Thanks to that union and the contracts it won, our lowest paid workers no longer automatically qualified for food stamps or welfare, and we all got a dental plan, a credit union, guaranteed breaks and seniority increments to help reduce turnover. Thanks to its example, staff, students and faculty got a facility shut down for asbestos abatement rather than kept open with laughable protections. Thanks to that union and its stewards, workers unfairly fired regained their jobs and workers justly penalized at least got due process. So, yeah, I have a different perspective of unions, management and bosses than you do.

            My statement about “seeing it put into brutal practice, for 35 years, as wages stagnated, working conditions declined and jobs were off-shored” was not empty hyperbole. I supported the Hormel meatpackers wildcat strike and walked the picket lines of striking and locked out airline pilots and flight attendants, and read, extensively, about the aftereffects in both industries, and in the case of meatpacking, of the effect of union-busting on those communities and the communities in Mexico that provided the new, low-wage labor force in an industry that is once again one of the least safe in the nation. I’ve walked picket lines for hotel and restaurant workers. I’ve seen union leaders who were time-servers and bureaucrats, sell-outs (tons) and Mafia stooges (one or two), and, sometimes, honest, hardworking, tough, caring and smart. And I’ve seen the impact on not just the services provided but local and regional economies of frozen wages, hiring freezes, mindless automation, privatization (coming soon to the homes of the developmentally disabled near you), contracting out (Crony Capitalism rampant!) and “right-sizing.” It ain’t pretty.

            By the way, I’ve never read the Huffington Post or Daily Kos on a regular basis, and I take what I see on MSNBC with more than a grain of salt. I do not take on faith anything I read in CounterPunch, The Nation, Workers Vanguard, the Left Business Observer or The American Conservative, the last of which I not only subscribe to but support. It’s a pity that with all that the contributors to TAC have written about de-industrialization, off-shoring, stagnant wages, the phony “free trade” regime and the cultural and social effects of said on American workers, their families and their communities, they just can’t seem to bring themselves to give unions, the basic self-defense instrument of the working class, a second look and some real consideration. So, which publication or website of the Left do you regularly follow?

          • Assassin

            I was a member of three unions. Paid dues and saw very little dividend. Same as many people that pay dues. In my union the top few percent made well over 90% of the money. And when the public got the bill and the product, many times they were absolutely disgusted.

            There’s a reason states are moving away from unions and going to ‘right to work’. Chicago is an absolute disaster as is Detroit. UAW priced the workers right out of Michigan.

            Anyway time for me to wrap this thread up. You like unions – I don’t. We just see things differently based on our own personal experiences.

          • cka2nd

            Last points: First, there are states and cities in just as bad shape as Chicago where unions play hardly any role at all. Second, labor costs were less than 20% of the cost of a car in 2008-2009, the UAW has been shoving lousy contracts down the throats of their members for decades, and the American South has been undercutting wages since the mid-19th Century and is still the poorest region of the nation.

            in closing, I’m willing to say that our feelings about unions are based not just on our personal experiences but our due consideration of other sources, as well. I just think my sources are better than yours. 😉

          • Assassin

            Could be, although I did work for Tom Donahue (head of the ATA and USCOC) for a couple of years. I had lunch with John J Sweeney [AFL-CIO prez]and Yaser Arafat at the same table at our office in DC.

          • Assassin

            Could be, although I did work for Tom Donahue (head of the ATA and USCOC) for a couple of years. I had lunch with John J Sweeney [AFL-CIO prez]and Yaser Arafat at the same table at our office in DC.