5 risky free-agent signings this offseason

Ryan M. Smith takes a look at five free-agent signings that could be overpriced given prior production levels.

| 7 months ago
(Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images)

(Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images)

5 risky free-agent signings this offseason

The Philadelphia Eagles landed two of the biggest free agents in the 2015 offseason, with RB DeMarco Murray (five-year, $40 million) and CB Byron Maxwell (six-year, $63 million). Incredibly, neither player is on the Eagles’ roster heading into the 2016 season.

Murray, (now a Tennessee Titan), finished last season as PFF’s 67th-ranked running back, with an overall grade of 48.6. Maxwell, (now a Miami Dolphin), was PFF’s 75th-ranked cornerback, with a grade of 52.4.

Free-agency busts like these likely contributed to Philadelphia’s decision to move on from Chip Kelly. What this suggests is the true reality of offseason spending in the NFL: if you spend big, you better win big.

With this in mind, here are five free agency moves that carry a lot of risk heading into the 2016 season.

1. Mohamed Sanu, WR, Atlanta Falcons

In QB Matt Ryan, RB Devonta Freeman, WR Julio Jones, and an improving offensive line, the Atlanta Falcons have the foundation in place to be one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL (fourth-highest-graded offense in 2015). Despite ranking seventh in offensive yards per game last season (374.4), the team finished 21st in points per game (21.2).

The production of former star wide receiver Roddy White (recently released) significantly dropped off, with with negative cumulative grades each of the past three seasons. WR Leonard Hankerson, who was brought in as a free agent in 2015, posted a 48.7 overall grade before being cut by Atlanta in December.

To remedy the hole at WR opposite Julio Jones, the Falcons signed former Bengals WR Mohamed Sanu to a five-year, $32.5 million contract shortly after the free-agency period began. Sanu, who has been a part of a prominent passing attack in Cincinnati since being drafted in 2012, earned just a 53.5 overall grade in 2015. It’s fair to wonder if Sanu is the compliment to Jones the team has been seeking for the past few seasons—especially at this price. 

2. Olivier Vernon, DE, New York Giants

The New York Giants ranked 30th in the NFL with just 23.0 sacks in the 2015 season, just one year after ranking fourth with 47.0 in 2014. Not surprisingly, the Giants’ defensive unit struggled mightily all season, finishing 26th in defensive points per game allowed (26.3), and earning just the 26th-highest pass-rush grade in the league.

More production in the trenches was a necessity for the Giants heading into free agency, so they ultimately signed former Dolphins DE Olivier Vernon to a massive five-year, $85 million contract. While there is little doubt Vernon will make the Giants a better team, there is cause for concern given the investment the organization has made long-term in the former Dolphin.

Vernon finished the 2015 season as PFF’s top-ranked 4-3 DE by a substantial margin. When star defensive end Cameron Wake went down with a torn Achilles in Week 8, Vernon went on to have one of the best nine-week stretches since PFF began grading games back in 2007.

In Vernon, the Giants are going to get a productive player, but how productive? His late-season surge was impressive, but it was the only such run of his career. (See his week-by-week game grades from last season below.)

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3. Coby Fleener, TE, New Orleans Saints

When the Indianapolis Colts selected Stanford QB Andrew Luck with the first-overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, and then selected his college teammate (and roommate) TE Coby Fleener in the second-round, many assumed that the duo would form a dominant NFL combination.

Unfortunately for the Colts, Fleener never quite lived up to that billing in Indianapolis, finishing the 2015 season as PFF’s 13th-ranked tight end (74.8 overall grade). That’s step up, though, from his 2014 season, when he finished as the 34th-highest-graded tight end.

Despite this, the New Orleans Saints signed Fleener to a five-year, $36 million contract. The guaranteed money ($18 million) ranks fourth in the NFL for the tight end position—ahead of Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Travis Kelce, just to name a few.

Fleener has the skill-set to be a solid option in the passing game, but his blocking (70.5 run-blocking, 76.9 pass-blocking grades in 2015) suggest that he is not yet a complete player, and an extremely risky signing by the Saints for that price.

4. Tashaun Gipson, S, Jacksonville Jaguars 

The Jacksonville Jaguars made tremendous strides on the offensive side of the ball in 2015. The defense, on the other hand, remained one of the league’s worst (third-lowest-graded in the NFL), although losing 2015 third-overall pick DE Dante Fowler, Jr. to a torn ACL on the first day of rookie minicamp didn’t help the cause.

The Jaguars owned the league’s sixth-lowest run-defense grade in 2015, ranking 15th in yards per game allowed (106.8). Through the air, the team ranked 30th in the NFL, allowing 268.2 yards per game while finishing 31st in the league in points allowed per game (28.0).

With Fowler presumably coming back healthy and the signing of a top defensive lineman in free agency (Malik Jackson), the Jags also signed former Cleveland Browns S Tashaun Gipson to a five-year, $35.5 million contract.

In 2015, Gipson was PFF’s 83rd-ranked safety out of a possible 88 qualifiers. He hit his career high-point thus far in 2014 (15th-highest graded safety that season), but has earned negative cumulative grade in two of his four professional seasons. The Jaguars desperately need a safety that excels in pass coverage, and they’ll hope Gipson can find his 2014 form again in a new organization.

5. Mark Barron, LB, Los Angeles Rams

When Mark Barron was drafted with the seventh-overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, he was expected to be the safety of the future for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After two and a half less-than-stellar seasons in Tampa, Barron was traded to the St. Louis Rams (now the Los Angeles Rams) in 2014.

Pass-coverage breakdowns, combined with starting OLB Alec Ogletree going down for the year early in 2015, led to a position switch for Barron in Week 5 of 2015. Now more of a hybrid linebacker/safety, Barron did show flashes of legitimate playmaking ability one week, but could be gashed the next, as evidenced by his highest-graded PFF game (Week 8) and lowest-graded (Week 9).

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Prior to free agency, PFF analyst Mike Renner wrote a piece on six free agents who were most likely to be overpaid, and at the top of the list was Barron. The Rams re-signed Barron to a five-year, $45 million contract about a week later.

Making a position switch in the middle of your career is by no means an easy transition, and Barron does appear to be a serviceable option in the role for Los Angeles. However, for the amount of money the team has invested in him, they should be expecting Barron to be a force at the linebacker position for 2016 and beyond.

  • Jaguars28

    The Jags gave up 3.7 yards per carry, yet had the sixth lowest run defense grade? How does that make any sense?

    • Frank Yi

      Football outsiders has them in the middle of the pack (17th ranked). Context of gains is important too. Without looking at their games, if they gave up a lot of short-yardage first downs, then they wouldn’t have performed well, for example.

  • Tim Edell

    The Sanu and Mark Barron signing to me really stick out as very very risky signings. Sanu has never proven to be a dependable second option and Barron is in no way deserving of 45 million.

  • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi