2021 Free Agency Cost-Benefit Analysis
After years and years of seeing their high-profile skilled teammates cash in, the 2021 offseason will be remembered as the year the NFL got some of that really expensive beef for their offensive lines.
At $23.0 million per season, Trent Williams signed the largest contract ever for a left tackle. At $16.0 million, Joe Thuney signed the largest contract ever for a left guard. At $12.5 million, Corey Linsley signed the largest contract ever for a center. At $18.0 million, Brandon Scherff signed the largest contract ever for a right guard. Poor Taylor Moton must be feeling left out, as his $13.8-million deal is only the fourth-highest for a right tackle. Stay strong, Taylor.
Often, when you see record-breaking contracts, it's simply because there's so much more money to go around. After all, the "highest-paid quarterback in league history" title has gone to six different players since 2018 as Jimmy Garoppolo, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes have signed new deals, but it wasn't until Mahomes inked his deal worth the GDP of Micronesia that anyone beat the adjusted total of Brett Favre's deal from 1997—a five-year, $39.4-million contract that was worth 19% of the salary cap when signed. The record just kept getting broken because, well, that's how much money is available.
These offensive line deals are different, however. Williams, Thuney and Scherff's records stand even when you adjust for the size of the salary cap. Heck, Thuney and Scherff's records stand even if you used last year's cap, before COVID shrunk it for the first time in history. These linemen are being paid a ton, but it's not because there is extra cash to throw around. These are record-setting deals in and of themselves, breaking records set by 2000 Jonathan Ogden and 2012 Carl Nicks and ... OK, 2018 Zack Martin isn't nearly as impressive of a gap, but you get the idea. Add in sizeable new deals for Kolton Miller, Donovan Smith, Andrew Norwell, Rodney Hudson, and Trent Brown, and you have the sort of offensive line spending spree you don't see every year.
The other big financial story this offseason, of course, is the salary cap. For the first time in history, it dropped—it's set to $182.5 million for 2021. That's more than teams initially feared, but still a $15.7-million drop from 2020, basically requiring teams to drop a Cooper Kupp-worth of contracts to squeeze under the cap. As such, 2021 has been the year of the Voidable Year—dummy seasons added to the back of contracts in order to push costs into the future.
Kenny Golladay, Shaquil Barrett, William Jackson, Romeo Okwara, Curtis Samuel, John Johnson, J.J. Watt, the list goes on—all of them have had extra automatically voiding years pinned to the back end of their contracts, allowing teams to push portions of their signing bonus into the future. Call it the Wimpy strategy, gladly paying Tuesday for a hamburger today.
The gamble makes sense, of course. 2020 is a strange, outlier year, and one can only hope that future global pandemics do not wreck the NFL's income streams again in the new future. Assuming business returns as usual, the cap should bounce back, and then some, in the next two to three years as the next television deals kick in. By deferring costs today, the Buccaneers were able to keep their Super Bowl team together, and huge deals were able to be given out across the league despite the cap dip. And hopefully, when the piper comes, the world will be in a little bit saner of a place.
Breaking the bank—and even future year's banks—for a game-changing player makes sense when you have the cap room to do so. To generate that cap space, however, you have to find savings elsewhere on the roster. One of the best ways to do that is to find good values in free-agent players on middle-class contracts who provide a bigger impact on the field than they do to your pocketbook.
That's why, every year, we take a look at the year's free-agent class and try to find the best values around—the guys on the free-agent market who signed for surprisingly cheap, and can make up the veteran backbone of a roster. Signing a boatload of these guys isn't a surefire recipe for playoff success, but it can sure make the rest of your roster construction that much easier.
While our basically methodology is the same as years gone by, we have fine-tuned our models some now that we have a full decade under the current CBA. It does a better job assigning values to players who bounce between roles—safeties and cornerbacks, tackles and interior linemen and so forth—while also better approximating deals in the past.
Using Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value (AV) statistic as our measure of player quality, we perform a regression analysis that looks at each player's previous three years of performance, adjusted for the aging curve of their position. By comparing that to previous deals and adjusting for cap inflation, we can create a Performance-Adjusted Yearly Monetary Expectation, or PAYME. We can then compare the actual contracts each player has signed and see which comes out as the most valuable.
As usual, a couple final caveats: a low-value score does not necessarily mean a bad contract, just a not-very-cost-effective one. You're not going to get the top edge rusher or quarterback in a class on a steal; you have to outbid several teams to go get them, and that's going to push their contract value up. Free agency is one of the few times where players in demand have the upper hand in their negotiation with management, and if you want a superstar, you're going to have to open that checkbook. The point of good-value contracts is to make room for the kinds of players you can't get for a bargain.
Secondly, while we can calculate value for any player making more than the veteran's minimum, including all that information in one article wouldn't be useful or interesting. Our tables will include every player who signed a contract of $3.5 million a year or more, as well as specially highlighted cheaper players near the top or bottom of their positional value. We're also only looking at deals for people who actually reached free agency; extensions, trades, and franchise tags offer a different set of negotiating positions, so we leave them out in the tables to get the most apples-to-apples comparisons.
Each table will have a player's new deal details—their total dollar amount, average cost per season, and amount of guaranteed money. We'll then list their PAYME Projection, or how much money our model predicted they would get paid based on their prior performance. Then, you'll have the Value, showing how much teams saved or overpaid. Finally, you'll have words which explain where the model might be overly optimistic or pessimistic on specific players.
|2021 Free-Agent Quarterbacks|
A far cry from last year's crop—no Tom Brady or Philip Rivers available this year. C.J. Beathard is the only free-agent passer to sign a multi-year deal; for what it's worth, he ends up as a $1.6-million bargain, and does not end up as nearly interesting enough to appear on the table.
Systems like this find projecting quarterbacks to be somewhat difficult—your quarterback position is an all-or-nothing proposition unless your name is Taysom Hill, so there's not a middle class of just-above-average value being produced by a rotational passer or something. The expected value of a quality starter is "write down the biggest number you can think of" dollars, while the expected value produced by a backup is "oh god, please never see the field" AV. As such, we muddle through the best we can while trying to project players going from backup to starter or vice versa.
The only reason Mitchell Trubisky has a higher estimated value than Ryan Fitzpatrick is age; tell the model that Fitzpatrick is in his twenties and raring to go and he'd be the most valuable prospect out there. As is, both players' value falls into a category which really doesn't exist. The top 15 passers all make at least $20 million per season, and only Ben Roethlisberger (old, possibly busted) and Taysom Hill (quarterback?) make more than $10 million but less than $15 million. As that's not really a spot where people sign contracts, it was nearly a given that Trubisky and Fitzpatrick would be overpaid or underpaid, and fortunately for the Bills and Football Team, both opted for value deals.
No, I wouldn't pay Trubisky $14.8 million dollars to throw a football for me, but I do really love his value as a backup here. He has been above replacement level in every season since his rookie year, and he was beginning to flash some gunslinger-esque decision-making down the stretch last year. Plus, he's the inaugural NVP, and you can't put a price on that. In all seriousness, all you want out of a backup is the ability to keep the ship afloat for a couple of weeks if your starter goes down with a minor injury; they shouldn't be expected to carry a team for huge chunks of their season, but salvaging .500 over a month or so while the starter is out is generally going to be enough to keep a season alive. I trust Trubisky to do that more than Jeff Driskel, Tim Boyle, or C.J. Beathard, all of whom are making just as much money as Trubisky in 2021.
By DVOA, Ryan Fitzpatrick's best three seasons have been his last three, which is bizarre for a player approaching his 40th birthday. He's obviously not a long-term solution for Washington—and, at this point, I have no idea what their long-term plan is. Ideally, he'd be starting in front of a top draft pick, like he did in Miami with Tua Tagovailoa, but Washington's unlikely NFC East title meant they were out of the picture for a top draft pick. Fitzpatrick was about as good as they could have done in an awkward situation, and he should provide competent play until they figure out their quarterback of the future. The Journeyman journeys on.
The model likes Tyrod Taylor the least, but there's no variable for "had lung punctured by training staff and lost job to rookie of the year." I'd instead have Andy Dalton as the worst value because, what, $10 million a year? For the 30th-ranked DVOA from a year ago? For a player who hasn't had positive DVOA since 2018, and hasn't had back-to-back positive seasons since 2015 and 2016? This is a lateral move, at best, over just plugging Nick Foles in there, and at least Foles is $2 million cheaper. That makes the Bears' decision to trade up for Justin Fields both more and less understandable. Why would a team give up multiple first-round draft picks trading up after spending $10 million on a free-agent quarterback? And how could a team not trade multiple first-round draft picks to move up when their QB1 was Andy Dalton?
|2021 Free-Agent Running Backs|
Personally, I don't think I'd want to pay any running back $5 million a year, but considering the current going rate for top backs, Chris Carson's deal is a legitimate value. Carson is now the 14th-highest paid running back in the league, but he has been a top-10 player almost no matter how you slice it. Over the past three seasons, he's eighth in the league with 623 DYAR, eighth with 3,778 yards from scrimmage, and tied for seventh with 27 AV. He's only 15th in yards per carry at 4.6, but some of that comes from 57 rushing attempts inside the 10-yard line, ninth-most in the league. He was also in the top three in success rate in each of the last two years, and 15th in 2018. The eighth-highest paid running back in the league is Melvin Gordon making $8 million a year, and the model basically says that should be Carson's contract instead.
When we say running backs don't matter, or that running backs are fungible, we mean you can find solid performance on minimum deals, and that a significant portion of a running back's value is actually present in their scheme and blocking. This is true, but it doesn't mean that any random back on the street can come in and produce 1,000-yard seasons. While I think the running back market is a bit too high, and backs in general are given too much credit for their team's rushing success, paying moderate amounts of money to someone like Carson is far from the worst thing in the world. Carson's new deal doesn't crack the top 50 running back contracts under the current CBA when adjusting for cap increases. The voidable year in 2023 is less than ideal, but not a deal-breaker. My quibbles with the contract would be about roster-building philosophy rather than individual player value (Let Russ Cook!), but if Pete Carroll thinks he needs a top-tier running back to make his offense work, at least he paid significantly under market value for one.
No, the real sin in running back contracts is paying interchangable veterans more than the minimum when you could just slap a rookie in there instead. Devontae Booker is valued at less than the league veteran minimum of $1.1 million by PAYME. He wouldn't pop up on the list if he were making the minimum, as those veteran contracts get discounted when it comes to caponomics. But the Giants are paying a premium for a player without the production to back things up.
Taiwan Jones is a special teams specialist with just 20 offensive snaps the last three seasons; the model is just treating him as a running back with nine carries over that timeframe. The Bills are obviously not paying him to be a running back, so having him on this list isn't really fair. But Devontae Booker has had negative DVOAs in four of his five seasons. Players such as Matt Breida, Wayne Gallman, Ameer Abdullah, and Kalen Ballage signed for the veteran's minimum, and there are other useful backs on the market. Paying premium prices for low-tier veterans at running back is not an ideal sign. Seriously, if anyone can explain why Dave Gettleman felt Booker was worth the 25th-largest running back contract in the league, I'm all ears. You could also slot players such as Lamar Miller, Giovanni Bernard, Malcom Brown, and so forth into this category—they're all making less than $2 million a year, so it's not the end of the world, but they're all backs getting up there in age making more than the veteran's minimum. These are the kinds of players you can find for dirt-cheap.
I would rather have given Booker's contract to James Conner, all things considered—he has the 24th-most DYAR over the last three seasons, though most of that comes from his receiving numbers in 2018 and 2019. Now, Approximate Value overrates Conner; he has the 15th-most AV over the past three years, and almost half of that comes from his Pro Bowl season in 2018. Accordingly, the model also overrates Conner; he's not a $6-million-a-year running back by any stretch of the imagination. But it's hard to justify him signing a smaller deal than Booker, Mike Davis, Carlos Hyde, or Phillip Lindsay.
The model is currently considering contracts from 2011 to 2020 as its base, which helps explain why it wants to pay an above-average-but-not-superstar running back so much money. Running back contracts have changed dramatically in just the past five seasons; the days when someone such as DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart would sign for more than 6% of a team's cap, or nearly $11 million in today's money, are long behind us. Still, less than $2 million a year for Conner is a great value, even if the model's jumping up and down a bit too much.
Todd Gurley remains unsigned as of time of writing. Taking his numbers as-is, the model would suggest a PAYME of $5.9 million for the ex-Falcons back. That is within spitting distance of other models out there, but it's also heavily influenced by his 23.6% DVOA 2018 season still being recorded in the model; Gurley does not appear to be that sort of player anymore. If you assume that his performance the last two years is his baseline going forward, he drops to a more reasonable $4.6 million, or the difference between RB12 and RB16.
|2021 Free-Agent Wide Receivers|
Well, the Giants got the best receiver—and arguably, best player—to hit the open market, but man, did it cost them a pretty penny. Kenny Golladay is now tied for the sixth-highest paid receiver in football, sharing that rank with Odell Beckham and Tyreek Hill. Now, remember that this is a measure of value, which is only one part of evaluating a deal. You try to make as many value deals as you can so you have the cap room to outbid everyone on a player of Golladay's caliber. Still, though, $18 million a year is a huge deal for someone who has had trouble staying on the field.
Over the last three seasons, Golladay ranks 17th among wideouts with 624 DYAR and just 25th in receiving yards at 2,591, but that's a little misleading. His strained hip flexor cost him 11 games in 2020, preventing him from racking up raw value. If you weight DVOA by targets per season, Golladay's three-year average of 16.4% is 11th among qualified wideouts, and he ranks 13th with 72 yards per game. That's who Golladay is at the moment—a top-15 receiver who has flashed top-10 potential, but has yet to prove he can be that sort of guy year-in and year-out. In addition, because Golladay missed so much time last season, his PAYME is artificially depressed. The model gives partial credit for games missed, but it doesn't try to make a distinction between a one-year affliction and the sort of injury that might hamper a player for years to come. Golladay's injury doesn't seem like it will be the lingering kind, so if you manually sub in his 2019 value for 2020 as well, he gets bounced up to a PAYME of $12 million a year. Frankly, that's still a little low in my book—that would only put him at WR21, as his 2019 AV is hurt somewhat by playing with David Blough and Jeff Driskel—but don't get too bogged down in the individual numbers; just look at the bigger picture. The Giants are paying Golladay to produce at Tyreek Hill levels, levels he has yet to reach in his career. The potential is obvious, and it's easy to understand why teams were lining up for the opportunity to pay Golladay. It is a risk, however, and it certainly isn't a value.
I'd say the worst contract on this list belongs to A.J. Green. His PAYME of $2.2 million is still too high, subjectively—his 2018 season is basically holding his value above zilch single-handedly. Green had a negative DVOA in 2017, before missing a year and half due to injury. He was the worst receiver in football in 2020 in both DYAR and DVOA; he simply could not separate from anyone anymore. And he's turning 33 in July. Over the past three years, only six receivers age 33 or older have even qualified for our main tables, and just one (2019 Julian Edelman) had the top-40 season that would justify Green's contract. Paying $6 million to see if 2020 was a fluke—and 2017, for that matter—is not the sort of gamble I would take. Nor would I pay Nelson Agholor $11 million a year to see if one year as a deep threat in Las Vegas makes up for multiple years of stone hands in Philadelphia.
John Brown was the odd man out in Buffalo this offseason—the Bills were fairly tight against the salary cap, and the emergence of Gabriel Davis made Brown somewhat expendable. Their loss is Las Vegas' gain, as going from Agholor to Brown as a deep threat may end up being an upgrade in and of itself, never mind the $7 million between the two players—Brown's weighted 2.6% DVOA over the past three years is significantly better than Agholor's -9.0%, even after Agholor's arguably fluky 2020. Brown beats out players like Sammy Watkins and Rashard Higgins in the "solid veteran wideout on a one-year deal hoping to cash in in 2022" sweepstakes. And remember, Brown was cut by Buffalo; his contract had not expired. That means that Brown doesn't count against the Raiders for their compensatory pick calculations. So instead of Agholor, the Raiders have Brown, $7.25 million, and an extra sixth-round pick next year. Not a bad deal at all.
|2021 Free-Agent Tight Ends|
2011 was a simpler time—Adele topping the charts, Charlie Sheen dripping with tiger blood, Harry Potter finally and mercifully coming to an end. Bill Belichick must agree—he has presumably spent the offseason watching film of the 2011 Patriots and reminiscing about the team's two-tight end glory days. I don't know how else to explain the Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith contracts!
Adjusted for cap inflation, Smith and Henry are now tied for the fifth-biggest deals given to tight ends under this CBA—and though my data is incomplete, I believe they're the fifth-biggest deals given to tight ends in the salary cap era. The four bigger ones were signed by, in order, George Kittle, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and Travis Kelce, and it's hard to group Henry and Smith in with that group. By DYAR, Smith and Hunter have been the 14th- and 15th-most valuable tight ends over the past three years. Henry has the excuse that he has been hurt, missing the entire 2018 season and parts of 2019 and 2020, but it's hard to put the two of them as being just a half-step away from the Kelces and Kittles of the world.
For much of the 2010s, the Patriots put a high value on tight ends, but that had been dropping in recent years. The ran basically no multi-tight end sets in 2020, ranking dead last with just 23 snaps, despite using a pair of third-round picks on Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. If that doesn't change in 2021 with Smith and Hunter on the roster, I will eat my hat. It's also worth noting that Hunter and Smith were the best two tight ends available, so if Belichick was sold on bringing back big sets, he went and grabbed the two best guys for it. You can see a pattern in New England's moves with Smith, Henry, and Nelson Agholor from the receivers section—after years of working with a subpar receiving corps, Belichick is doing whatever he can to not let that be the Achilles' heel for the Patriots yet again in 2021. It helps that they don't have a high-priced quarterback to pay either; they have the sixth-cheapest quarterback room in the league, which gives them extra wriggle room to spend money elsewhere. Still, though. Yowza.
Speaking of Patriots tight ends, Rob Gronkowski's PAYME takes a hit due to missing 2019; there's no "retired to pursue wrestling stardom" variable. If you assume he would have put up similar numbers in 2019 as he did the year before and after, his value would rise closer to $7.5 million. You pay the extra half-million for general Gronkitude.
Dan Arnold is the kind of under-the-radar signing that I enjoy immensely. Carolina has had a need at the tight end position since Greg Olsen left, and it turns out the duo of Ian Thomas and Chris Manhertz was not the answer. Arnold had 101 DYAR in Arizona last season, bringing his career total to, erm, 104. He has worked with Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady before, so there's some scheme familiarity, too. A quiet upgrade, perhaps, but an upgrade not withstanding.
The model also likes Jared Cook's deal—surprising for a player who turned 34 in April, but Cook has only gotten better with age. He's tied with Darren Waller for third-most DYAR over the past three seasons with 417, and there's a pretty large gap between them and the next-best players. Age is obviously a concern, but there's always a handful of aging tight ends qualifying for our leaderboards; 34-year-old Darren Fells was 10th in DYAR and second in DVOA a year ago. Cook's obviously not a long-term replacement for Hunter Henry, but he's at least a short-term patch and a third viable threat for Justin Herbert to target.
We're grouping all linemen into one table, but we'll also note the position the model assigns each player, because that can get murky when you start talking about sixth linemen and the like.
|2021 Free-Agent Offensive Linemen|
First, the elephant in the room. Cameron Erving is being evaluated as a guard, but could also easily be slotted in at tackle; he was a guard in 2018, a tackle in 2019, and played both positions in 2020. Evaluate him as a tackle instead, and his PAYME jumps to $5.7 million, putting him on the positive side of the ledger for the Panthers. For what it's worth, Erving says he's most comfortable at left tackle, though I think I'd say the same thing if I were entering free agency, as tackles get paid more.
What's that? The other elephant in the room? Oh, right. Approximate Value does a poor job differentiating between average linemen. Without any real stats to go by, it can't really figure out the difference between someone like Kevin Zeitler and Sam Tevi. Tevi has averaged 8.3 AV over the past three seasons, Zeitler has averaged 7.0, and the difference is solely because tackles get 1.2 times as many points as guards. Neither has made a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro team, both have been consistent starters, and the Chargers' offense has been better than the Giants or Browns. It doesn't know that Tevi has arguably been a liability while Zeitler has been a good player basically every year except for last. It just sees two players who are week-in, week-out starters, and says to pay the younger one at the more valuable position more money. It takes the longest time for AV to work out among linemen due to the lack of individual stats. Players such as Tevi eventually get benched, but the Chargers haven't exactly had a plethora of linemen to work with over the years. Tevi started nearly every week, as did Zeitler, so both deserve somewhere around the 30th-biggest contract for their positions, right? Well, no.
I considered not even putting Tevi's contract on the board, as he's under the $3.5-million cutoff, but then I wouldn't have been able to add this disclaimer, would I? And then I couldn't explain how Joe Thuney falls into the same boat—he has never received honors, so AV sees him as a solid starter and not one of the top young guards in the game. It's not quite a case of garbage-in, garbage-out—it does correctly evaluate Thuney as the top guard out there this year, and it does take into account how good a team's offense was, so it's not flying completely blind. But, moreso than any other position, take these numbers with a significant grain of salt.
What's that? The other other elephant in the room? Right.
Trent William's valuation is wrong. Williams didn't play at all in 2019, and the model can't randomly assign him a value for the year he sat out. If you put it equal to his 2020 season, his PAYME rises to $8.8 million, which is at least a little more reasonable. The model also hates paying older linemen because the league has hated paying older linemen. The biggest contract in the past 10 years given to a free agent offensive lineman Williams' age or older went to Andrew Whitworth in 2017, when he signed an $11.2-million-a-year deal with the Rams. There are a few bigger deals than that when you look at players who signed extensions—Joe Thomas and Joe Staley, specifically—but neither of them come close to Williams' deal, either. Top linemen in their 30s are basically not a thing on the free agent market, and so the model devalues them more than perhaps it should. That's what's going on with Alex Mack, for example, as it's fairly sure "36-year-old center" is just a euphemism for "dead guy." Williams' deal is not nearly as poor as the model thinks it is.
That being said, however, great googily moogily. Jonathan Ogden signed a six-year, $44.7-million deal with the Ravens back in 2000; adjusted for salary cap inflation, that's $131 million in total value and $22.9 million per year in today's money. Williams just broke both of those records. Ogden did have a little more guaranteed, but he was also just 26 years old, so that makes sense. Now, the 49ers have been good at structuring massive contracts so they can escape, if needs be. Williams' deal could more accurately be described as a three-year, $61-million deal with club options on those last three seasons; Williams won't be $33 million against the cap in 2026 at age 38 unless he's still playing at a high level. But escape clauses or not, this is a massive amount of money to give to one player.
The Lynch/Shanahan regime does not care about player value. If they've decided you're Their Guy, they will move heaven and earth to get you, regardless of what other teams think. Since taking over, and even after adjusting for salary cap era, they have inked:
- The largest left tackle contract in history (Williams);
- The largest tight end contract in history (George Kittle);
- Two of the three largest fullback contracts ever signed (both by Kyle Juszcyzk);
- The least value-added center contract of the 2011 CBA (Weston Richburg);
- The third-least value-added quarterback contract of the 2011 CBA (Jimmy Garoppolo).
Oh, and they just traded three first-round picks for Trey Lance, too. Can't forget that one. And trading into the third round to draft C.J. Beathard, and trading back into the first round to take Brandon Aiyuk...
Not all these deals were bad, mind you—Kittle's deal came out as roughly average at the time, Juszcyzk has been more valuable in Shanahan's offense than he would have been elsewhere, and so forth. But it's clear that if Kyle Shanahan thinks you're going to be good for his offense, he will do whatever is necessary to get you. He does not care how many resources he has to give up, he does not care who he has to outbid. If it's even slightly in the realm of possibility that he can make you a 49ers player, he is going to do it. Value models hate Kyle Shanahan. And, frankly, I think it shows an overconfidence in his own player evaluation ability. Don't get me wrong, his offenses are brilliantly designed and I think I'd take him over any other offensive playcaller in the league, but predicting the future is hard, and Shanahan is by far the most willing person in the NFL today to bet on his own precognitive abilities.
For what it's worth, Eric Fisher is still available. If he hadn't ruptured his Achilles tendon, his PAYME would be up at $11.9 million. As it is, teams are likely waiting to see how his rehab goes, and assuming he'll be able to play, he'll likely sign a cheaper one-year deal somewhere that will be the best value of the class. Austin Reiter's still out there too, as a run on valuable ex-Chiefs linemen may happen after the draft.
Interior Defensive Line
|2021 Free-Agent Defensive Linemen|
Both J.J. Watt and Morgan Fox could be evaluated as edge rushers instead of interior linemen. That's enough to flip Fox from slightly negative to slightly positive, but Watt still comes out as the least valuable rusher no matter which position you list him as. No one was ever going to get J.J. Watt at a bargain, of course—there was a multi-team bidding war for his services. Had Watt's last few seasons been akin to his early 2010s run, when he was arguably the best defensive player in football, his PAYME would come out to $19.3 million, even in his 30s. If he had matched his 2018 level of performance the last three years, it'd be $17.2 million. The Cardinals are gambling that Watt will return to being a double-digit-sack player, at which point his deal will be a massive bargain. With Watt's injury history, it is a gamble, but I don't think it's an unreasonable one.
Both Lawrence Guy and D.J. Jones are valued as top-25 defensive tackles, which is a bit high for them, but both are very useful players in an interior line rotation, and both signed discounted deals to remain exactly where they were. The Patriots have gotten some flack for some of their high-priced free agents this offseason, and you could argue that adding mid-tier players such as Henry Anderson and Davon Godchaux are just going to prevent rookies from developing behind them, but I'm actually OK with what they've done along the line.
One other note: Al Woods opted out of 2020 due to COVID, which knocks his valuation down. The model still doesn't like signing 34-year-old rotational run-stuffers to anything other than minimum deals, and he's a good reminder that not all sub-$3 million deals end up grading out as positive.
|2021 Free-Agent Edge Rushers|
|Kyle Van Noy||30||NE||2||$12,000,000||$6,000,000||$6,000,000||$12,632,000||$6,632,000|
Kyle Van Noy could justifiably be listed as a linebacker as well. His role in the New England-style defense sort of bounces back and forth; he blitzes more than a standard inside linebacker, but goes into coverage more than a standard edge guy. If you treat him as a linebacker instead, his PAYME drops to a more reasonable $8.2 million, and that's more how the Patriots are actually valuing him. Still a good deal, mind you! He's just a player who doesn't quite fit into normal boxes. Honestly, Matt Judon falls into the same bucket; those are the kind of players New England is collecting. If you treat Judon as a linebacker, his PAYME drops to $8.8 million. It seems clear from how the Patriots are structuring these contracts that they expect Judon to be a more dedicated pass-rusher than Van Noy will be, but both players are versatile enough to play multiple roles.
Shaq Barrett and Bud Dupree were never going to be values. They are the kind of players you're scrimping and saving for—and, considering the top edge rusher deals are topping $25 million a year nowadays, I think it's entirely justifiable to lock Dupree and Barrett up for mid-teens numbers. Given the choice, I'd take Barrett, even with his higher contract. As for the other high-priced rushers...
Trey Hendrickson is being paid for 2020. He had 13.5 sacks last year after recording just 6.5 in his first three years in the league. If you assume that's going to be his new normal going forward, Hendrickson's PAYME would come out to $13.3 million, or just about what the Bengals are actually paying him. It's always worrisome to go chasing after someone who might be a one-year wonder, but after letting Carl Lawson go, the Bengals needed to gamble somewhere. At least Hendrickson's 2020 season does justify his contract; they just need him to prove he can replicate that.
AV hates Carl Lawson. He has 10 AV in his career, the same as players such as Josh Mauro or Mario Edwards. The Bengals' defense has been bad, but there has been some AV to go around—over the same time period, Carlos Dunlap has 24 AV, Shawn Williams 23, Geno Atkins 28, Jessie Bates 26, and so forth. Lawson's sack totals aren't gaudy, he has never been to the Pro Bowl, and he wasn't a regular starter until 2020—he has had a larger and larger role has time has gone by, but he started as a sub-package blitz-only guy, and 2020 was the first year he played more than 60% of Cincinnati's defensive snaps. Again, if you just triple-count 2020 rather than looking at Lawson's last three years, his PAYME jumps—but only to $7.7 million. I would agree that $15 million a year is too much for Lawson, but AV is dumping on him far, far too much.
I'd rather have Lawson at $15 million than Okwara at $12.3 million. Okwara had 10 sacks last year (nearly double Lawson!), and he did it for a Matt Patricia-organized defense which was "organized" in only the very loosest sense of the word. Like Hendrickson, Okwara is getting paid for what he managed last season. Unlike Hendrickson, Okwara has played at least 60% of Detroit's snaps the last three years; his increased production did not come with increased opportunity. With Hendrickson, the argument is that his production improved when he had more opportunities, and so if you keep giving him opportunities, he will continue to produce at that level. That argument doesn't work with Okwara, though the "Matt Patricia is really bad and made his players look worse than they are" defense is intriguing, and I wish to subscribe to its newsletter.
The $8-million-a-year range gives you edge rushers 39 to 44 in terms of average salary, so you're talking about good supplementary rushers and not the focal point of a defense. That sounds like exactly the right rolls for Samson Ebukam and Takkarist McKinley, who now get to play third fiddle for some impressive-looking pass rushes. I'm not entirely sure that describes Tanoh Kpassagnon quite as well; it looks like AV took all that love it didn't give Lawson and handed it right over to Kpassagnon. Still, $2.3 million a year for a durable player who needs a little more polish on the field is a solid deal, just maybe not one of the best deals of the offseason.
|2021 Free-Agent Linebackers|
Not a lot of action on the linebacker front this offseason. Find yourself someone who loves you as much as AV loves consistent starting inside linebackers, especially ones with Super Bowl rings to their name. As for Jarrad Davis, see the Romeo Okwara "freaking Matt Patrica" theory for why teams might like him more than AV does.
We're grouping all defensive backs onto one table, but signifying whether the model considers each one a cornerback or a safety, a distinction that gets murky for some players.
|2021 Free-Agent Defensive Backs|
"Levi Wallace, Desmond King, and Sidney Jones are all in the 25-to-40 range among NFL cornerbacks, and should be paid appropriately," the model suggests.
"Maybe," replies Jacksonville, "but Jones is coming off of his second torn Achilles of his career; we'll take an injury discount, thank you very much."
"Sure," replies Buffalo, "but we re-signed Wallace for less than his restricted free agent deal would be worth, so clearly he wasn't in demand."
"Yeah, right," replies Houston. "King was traded midseason last year for a sixth-round pick, so who's going to pay THAT guy?"
I like all three contracts quite a bit, and thus ends the section where I say nice things about Houston's offseason.
I definitely like the risk on Jones more than I like what Jacksonville is paying to Shaquill Griffin. Griffin has been good, don't get me wrong, but he's now the 11th-highest paid corner in football. When Griffin is on, he's worth that much, but Griffin's more up-and-down than you'd like for a No. 1 shutdown corner. Jacksonville has money to blow, as they didn't have a lot of veterans worth paying and don't have a quarterback on a huge deal to worry about eating up their cap room. So giving out big sums of money to Griffin and Rayshawn Jenkins to install Joe Cullen's aggressive defensive style isn't the worst idea in the world. They're certainly not value signings, but Jacksonville has more to worry about right now than pinching every penny; it's not the end of the world to outbid all comers for players they think will set standards at their position.
Adoree' Jackson is getting dinged for missing basically all of 2020 due to injury. Give him his average performance last season, and his PAYME rises to $9.3 million, which would be 20th in the league at the cornerback position. You could argue that's still a bit low, though reasonable, and it's a surprise that Tennessee didn't use their fifth-year option on him; that would have been just $10.2 million.
That just leaves the third massive cornerback deal to explain. William Jackson only has two interceptions over the last two seasons, which AV doesn't love, but that's at least somewhat due to teams not throwing in his general direction, partially because he's very good, and partially because the rest of the Bengals were very bad. I don't believe he's the top-10 corner he's being paid to be, but his deal is better than the model is evaluating it.
John Johnson was the best safety available, and his value is still being decreased due to his 2019 shoulder injury. With no signs of that being a long-term issue, bumping him up close to $9 million makes sense. That still leaves a premium Cleveland paid for him to outbid the Jags, Eagles, Lions, and Rams, but making him the second-highest paid strong safety in the league isn't an insane idea.
|2021 Free-Agent Special Teams|
... this may have not required a full table.
Ryan Succop made 90.3% of his field goals last year, but Tampa ranked just 15th in field goal/extra point value. And Succop hadn't topped 90% since 2016 before that. He's clearly a perfectly acceptable NFL kicker, but with players such as Nick Folk and Cody Parkey signing for under $1.7 million, it's hard to get excited about a 10-digit deal for someone on special teams.
So, with all that information, which teams were diving for value, and which were splurging for top talent?
If you just add all the contracts' value together, the winner for value signings is the Houston Texans, generating nearly $14.5 million in surplus value. That's not a huge surprise—they signed 23 different players for more than the veteran's minimum in free agency, with 15 clocking in at $1.6 million or less. A ton of that value, then, is for deals such as Jaleel Johnson for $1.3 million or Chris Conley for $1.5 million, or Desmond King and Christian Kirksey for $3 million apiece—small, roster-filling moves. They had only two players hit the $3.5-million threshold to automatically be included in the tables, and both Tyrod Taylor and Kevin Pierre-Louis graded out as negative deals. This is small ball, signing useful roster pieces to budget deals. The issue is that they're clogging your depth chart, taking up slots that your young draft picks need to develop. That, uh, isn't a huge problem for the Texans this year. These are also almost all one-year deals, so if these players do perform above their contract level … Houston will just have to pay them more money in the future. The question you have to have for Houston is what they were saving all that value for. They didn't re-sign J.J. Watt or Will Fuller; they just signed a bunch of average players to solid deals. Value is a benefit in a vacuum, but it's only part of a team's overall picture. Houston fans shouldn't have too many problems with the actual players the Texans signed or their deals; the questions come with the overall direction and intentions of the franchise. But hey, Jordan Jenkins for $3 million a year! Pop the bubbly!
On a per-player basis, the Buffalo Bills' class of six players above the veteran's minimum clocks in as the most valuable, with $14 million in surplus value. Mitchell Trubisky becomes one of the best backups in football, a more than acceptable safety net if Josh Allen should go down for a couple weeks. As a second corner, Levi Wallace is far from a liability, and getting him for $1.8 million instead of his RFA value of $2.1 million is just free money. Even punter Matt Haack comes in as a positive deal, if only just. And remember, the model is judging Taiwan Jones as a valueless running back rather than a core special teams player. Buffalo didn't bring in any new starters or anything this offseason, but they didn't have a ton of needs either. Their offseason spending came from re-signing their own players—Matt Milano, Daryl Williams, Jon Feliciano, et cetera—with money saved by being prudent in free agency.
While it's technically beyond the scope of this article, the Indianapolis Colts come out with the most value generated if you include all their offseason signings, including veteran minimum deals and extensions to their own players, coming out with $21.2 million of excess value generated. Zach Pascal signed as a restricted free agent; he played more snaps than any other Colts receiver in 2020. They somewhat surprisingly brought Marlon Mack back; if he's recovered from his torn Achilles tendon, that's a great signing. Julién Davenport and Chris Reed are valuable depth pieces for the veteran's minimum. Note that this does not include Carson Wentz; the Colts did not sign or alter his contract in any way. You can see why the Colts were frugal elsewhere, but at least they did a good job finding that value.
On the other side of the ledger, the San Francisco 49ers had the least total value generated, losing nearly $14.7 million in surplus value. That's basically all the Trent Williams deal, which we discussed above; their other four non-minimum deals (Alex Mack, Samson Ebukam, D.J. Jones, and K'Waun Williams) average out to about a wash. Using the money you save elsewhere to sign Williams to a long-term deal is far from the worst use of money I've ever seen, but yeah. Add the combination of the 49ers' believing they're a Super Bowl contender in 2021 and Kyle Shanahan basically signing off on giving any amount of money needed to ensure his offensive line is up to his standards? That's not a recipe for frugality.
On a per-player basis, the Los Angeles Rams come in last. That's because they signed only one free agent for more than the veteran's minimum, DeSean Jackson, and the model has it as a $2.7 million overpay due to Jackson's extensive injury history—he last played a full 16-game season in 2013, and last played half a year in 2018. If fully healthy, $4.5 million for Jackson is just fine, though "if" is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence.
If you include all deals, including re-signing their own players, then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers come in as the team generating the least value, losing $21.2 million. The Buccaneers just won the Super Bowl. The Buccaneers are bringing every starter from their Super Bowl-winning team back. The Buccaneers only have so long with Tom Brady under center. The Buccaneers are fine with giving the franchise tag to Chris Godwin or giving Donovan Smith $30 million guaranteed over the next two years, the second-largest guarantee per year ever given to a tackle. Their window is now and they'll pay whatever it takes to keep it open.