NFL Free Agency: Five best and five worst signings
A few days into free agency, most of the big names are off the board. The MMQB has covered things from just about every angle, with grades on the biggest moves, early winners, best players still available and much more.
Here’s a quick look at the five best and five worst moves we’ve seen so far.
5. Rodger Saffold, LG, Titans – 4 years, $22.5M guaranteed
THIS is exactly what free agency is for. The Titans are built on an outside zone ground game. Their previous left guard, Quinton Spain, was a downhill mauler who lacked the lateral movement skills to consistently execute zone blocks. So, the Titans invested in Saffold, who garnered All-Pro votes each of the last two years playing in the Rams’ outside zone scheme. Yes, Saffold tailed off a bit late last year (by his standards), which is concerning for a player who turns 31 in June. But it wasn’t a steep enough decline to forebode an imminent collapse. With Marcus Mariota under center, Tennessee’s offense must start with the ground game, which makes left guard a critical position.
4. Adrian Amos, S, Packers – 4 years, $12M guaranteed
Amos played in a predominantly 2-deep safety scheme under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in Chicago and now must transition to a predominantly 1-deep scheme under Packers coordinator Mike Pettine. But that’ll be a small challenge, and Amos was always sound when the Bears did employ 1-deep coverages. More importantly, Fangio’s and Pettine’s schemes are predicated on matchup zone principles. Amos has the vision and spatial awareness to solidify Green Bay’s matchup zones, which wobbled too often last year as young players shuffled from position to position, due to injuries and lineup-tinkering. Another way to view this: Instead of re-signing Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, one of football’s most physically gifted but least reliable safeties, the Packers filled that spot with a quality starter from their rival Bears. (And later saw those Bears sign Clinton-Dix, no less.)
3. Breshad Perriman, WR, Buccaneers – 1 year, $4 million guaranteed
Perriman, who last season came on strong late with the Browns, originally agreed to this “prove it” deal with Cleveland but wisely backed out after the Odell Beckham Jr. trade. With Beckham aboard, Perriman, who is purely an outside receiver, would have likely been relegated to the No. 4 spot, giving him little chance to prove anything. In Tampa, he’ll likely be the No. 2 or No. 3 receiver, ensuring he’ll see a majority of the snaps. Those snaps will feature aerial designs that suit him, as he’s adept on the deep and intermediate perimeter routes that define new Bucs head coach Bruce Arians’s passing attack.
2. Earl Thomas, S, Ravens – 4 years, $32 million guaranteed
Was it a bargain? Not really. But the safety position is more important to the disguise-oriented, blitz-intensive Ravens than it is to any other defense. Thomas will only be 30 come Week 1. For a free safety, who endures contact on fewer than half the snaps, that’s not old, even for a guy who had a rod inserted into the leg he fractured last October. Plus Thomas isn’t only a free safety…in passing situations as a Seahawk, he came down into the box to have a greater impact in coverage. That versatility is crucial to Baltimore’s approach. With Thomas and seventh-year pro Tony Jefferson, the Ravens have football’s best safety tandem.
1. Tevin Coleman, RB, 49ers – 2 years, $8.5-10.6M total (depending on incentives), $3.6M in Year 1 with penalty-free team option in Year 2.
The contract terms are unbelievably team-friendly, and Coleman is an instant difference-maker. Long-striding speed makes him football’s most explosive pure outside runner, and his flexibility in the passing game is perfect for Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, especially alongside Jerick McKinnon and versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Shanahan loves to put multiple backs on the field because, with more run possibilities to account for, the defense is rendered into a predictable coverage. Shanahan then exploits those coverages with QB-friendly route combinations.
Coleman can run most of the route tree. He is such an outrageous bargain, in fact, that you wonder if there’s something negative about him that teams know but we don’t. But if that were the case, he likely would not have been signed by Shanahan, who was Coleman’s offensive coordinator in Atlanta. After the 2016 season whispers around the NFL were that Coleman, despite backing up star Devonta Freeman, was Shanahan’s favorite Falcons back.
5. C.J. Mosley, LB, Jets – 5 years, $51M guaranteed
The Jets paid top dollar for a guy who unofficially ranks somewhere between 6-12 at his position. Look: That’s the nature of free agency; every year there are two or three signings like this. The Jets, with more cap space than every team except Indy, could afford to splurge. And Mosley is a fine player who stabilizes the run defense and enhances the blitz packages that new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams loves. So we’re not going to rip this move. But paying above sticker price on a monster-sized deal will always land the team and player on lists like these.
It’ll be interesting to see how this goes. One thing to watch is New York in Cover 2. When Williams is not calling blitzes, Cover 2 is his favorite look. Its zone structure often has the middle linebacker run with an inside receiver downfield (making the coverage “Tampa 2”). The Ravens did this a lot under defensive coordinator Dean Pees in 2017 but got away from it under new coordinator Wink Martindale in 2018. One reason for that may have been the team grew leery of Mosley covering deep down the middle, as he doesn’t have great speed.
4. Justin Coleman, slot CB, Lions – 4 years, $17.9M guaranteed
Great fanfare surrounded this one. Report: Lions set to make Justin Coleman the highest-paid nickel corner in history! Congrats to Coleman—he played well as a Seahawk. But if it’s slot help you want, why not go after Bryce Callahan, who had an All-Pro caliber season in Chicago? Yes, the Bears ran a zone scheme and Matt Patricia prefers man-to-man. But in Chicago’s zone scheme, the slot corner often has man-to-man type duties, playing to help over the top. Patricia’s scheme has similar demands, only with your help being inside. It’s a subtle difference that Callahan would easily pick up. Oh, and besides: The Seahawks scheme that Coleman thrived in the last two years often asked the slot corner to play true zone coverage, with very few man-to-man elements. So not only would Callahan, who remains unsigned, presumably have been much cheaper than Coleman, but his recent experience is more applicable to Patricia’s system. It should be noted, however, that Coleman spent his first two NFL seasons with Patricia in New England. But that tenure was uninspiring, which is how Coleman wound up in Seattle.
Overall, the Lions paid a premium for Coleman, but his appearance on this list is more about who the team passed over. Callahan so outshines Coleman on paper that you wonder if the Lions (and other teams) have bad, unreported news on Callahan. He fractured his foot and underwent season-ending surgery last December…is everything OK there? If it is, this move is hard to understand.
3. Devin Funchess, WR, Colts – 1 years, $10M (with another $3M available in incentives)
Even before last season ended, multiple reports said there was a “0% chance” Carolina would re-sign Funchess. His production over the final six weeks: 3 catches, 33 yards. Total. We’ve seen other disappointing receivers, including 2018 Pro Bowl tight end Eric Ebron, thrive after joining Andrew Luck, and Funchess is only on a one-year deal. But many would argue that late-bloomer Breshad Perriman is a better prospect than Funchess, who moves like a moderately swift tight end but is only equipped to play out wide. Perriman was signed for just 40 percent of what Funchess got. How much better is Funchess than Dontrelle Inman, who had 8 catches for 108 yards and 1 TD in the postseason for Indianapolis and remains unsigned?
2. Latavius Murray, RB, Saints – 4 years, $7.2M guaranteed
In some respects, this is less about Murray and more about Mark Ingram, a vastly underrated between-the-tackles runner who also did wonders for New Orleans’s backfield screen game. Murray is less agile, less patient and a lot less powerful than Ingram, who signed with the Ravens for just under $1.5 million more on an annual average than Murray got. The Saints are in “win now” mode and downgraded significantly at a position that has become important in their high-volume offense. And let’s not forget new Niner Tevin Coleman’s deal, which is also not much more expensive than Murray’s. Coleman and Murray are different types of runners, and Murray, if we’re purely talking style, is a better fit in New Orleans’s scheme. But that’s like a Hollywood producer saying Emelio Estevez is a better fit for a leading role than Bryan Cranston because the character should be 5’7”, not 5’11”. At some point, raw talent must rule the day. Ingram, and especially Coleman, have a lot more of it than Murray.
1. Ja’Wuan James, RT, Broncos – 4 years, $32M guaranteed
Privately, some people close to the Dolphins waited to see who signed James with the same eager anticipation with which you wait to see who sits on the seat with the whoopie cushion. They believe a rude surprise awaits that GM. Turns out the GM is John Elway. He won’t hear the whoopie cushion until later down the road, but the Dolphins are already laughing. You can understand why Elway made the move; right tackles are hard to find, and playing with a bad one can significantly hinder your scheme. But the belief by some in Miami was that other teams wouldn’t know just how much energy was spent each week gameplanning ways to hide and help James. He’s not quick or nimble enough to get out in space in the screen game, and he’s prone to breakdowns (both physical and mental) in pass protection.
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