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Why NFL Teams Shelled Out Millions for the Biggest Free Agents

And why many of them shouldn’t have

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The NFL offseason has been a whirlwind, with high-profile trades, releases, and signings. Struggling to track the free-agent frenzy? The Ringer’s Mike Lombardi is here to explain why each deal makes sense — or doesn’t. Check back as news develops.

Why They Did It

Brandin Cooks, WR, New England Patriots (traded along with the 118th pick for the 32nd and 103rd picks)

In less than 48 hours, the defending champs added two premium starters to an already loaded roster: Stephon Gilmore and Cooks, that latter of whom will become the best all-around wideout to play with Tom Brady since Deion Branch was in his prime. As great as Brady is, he’s even better when he trusts his receivers completely to be in the right spots and understand his checks at the line of scrimmage. Only 23 years old but with three NFL seasons already under his belt, Cooks gives Brady something he’s rarely had: a playmaking receiver who wins battles outside the numbers and consistently separates himself from man coverage. Bill Belichick always tells his receivers two things: to get open and to catch the ball. That’s Cooks. Stick him next to Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Chris Hogan (with James White and Dion Lewis catching balls out of the backfield), and New England’s receiving corps is about as deep as it’s ever been.

Why They Did It

Martellus Bennett, TE, Green Bay Packers (three years, $21 million)

Packers GM Ted Thompson unexpectedly cancelled his annual March hibernation and joined everyone else in free agency. Usually, Thompson prefers to hang onto Green Bay’s money, adding compensatory picks and using the draft to construct each year’s roster. But it would have been difficult to find someone as good as Bennett in the draft — he’s a legitimate inside receiver who can also handle the edge in the run game. Bennett’s size and length make him the perfect target for Aaron Rodgers on back-shoulder throws and seam routes. Remember how a healthy Jared Cook made Green Bay’s offense tougher to defend? Bennett is a better version of Cook. Give Thompson credit for parting with a precious comp pick to fill a pressing Packers need.

Why They Did It

Brandon Williams, DT, Baltimore Ravens (five years, $54 million)

The character Senator Clay Davis of The Wire once said, “I’ll take any [person’s] money if he’s giving it away.” When you cannot play run defense in the NFL, basically, you are giving away money. The 2016 Ravens looked like a playoff contender (at least in my eyes) partly because of their incredible run defense. But they collapsed late in the season, losing three of their final four and allowing 136 rushing yards per game (compared to 74 per game before that stretch). So instead of giving money away to their opponents, the Ravens gave it away to Brandon Williams — more than $10 million a year, even more than what the Giants paid Damon Harrison last season (five years, $46.3 million). Even if the Ravens overpaid a little to re-sign their big defensive tackle, it’s a make-or-break year for them, and they can’t contend in their division without stopping the run.

Why They Shouldn’t Have Done It

Logan Ryan, CB, Tennessee Titans (three years, $30 million)

One of my favorite Bruce Springsteen lines sets the stage for what the Titans did here: “I can’t tell my courage from my desperation.” Ryan was a good slot corner in New England — but the operative word there was “slot.” He has always been speed deficient (a nice way of calling him “a little bit slow”), but the Patriots always compensated for that liability. Paying Ryan $10 million a year, meanwhile, means he has to perform well as an outside corner, a position that highlights his lack of speed and limits his coverage help. His biggest upside? He’s an excellent tackler, a necessity for any Dick LeBeau defense. Still, a team doesn’t want to pay $10 million a year for a tackler. After the Titans lost out on A.J. Bouye, they did what many teams do when they miss on a key target in free agency: They panicked.

Why They Did It

Matt Barkley, QB, San Francisco 49ers (no terms released)

I know, I know. The end of the 2016 season wasn’t kind to Barkley. He made Jay Cutler look like a ball protector, giving the ball away 12 times in his final three Bears games. But there were also real flashes of good play in Barkley’s six starts. And since new 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan can bring out the best in quarterbacks, I actually like the move. Barkley needs the right scheme to succeed, and Shanahan’s fits him perfectly. Unless the Niners overpaid (and I doubt they did), they made a solid gamble on a young QB with potential. Could Barkley become a late bloomer like Rich Gannon or Trent Green? It’s worth the risk to find out.

Why They Shouldn’t Have Done It

Alshon Jeffery, WR, Philadelphia Eagles (one year, $14 million)

I hate renting, even in lovely Los Angeles, where the views are great but the rents are high. I especially hate paying big bucks for one-year players like the Eagles did with Jeffery. It’s great for him — now he can sign a longer deal to his liking next winter, assuming he can stay healthy after missing 11 games over the past two seasons. Jeffery can’t get much separation, but he thrives as a jump-ball receiver; even though he’s rarely wide open and often covered, he has a knack for coming down with footballs in traffic. That’s a valuable skill. It’s just not worth $14 million for one season.

Why They Shouldn’t Have Done It

Russell Okung, T, San Diego Chargers (four years, $53 million)

This deal absolutely blows me away, and not in a good way. I love Philip Rivers and believe he’s never had an offensive line that could take pressure off him; he doesn’t get enough credit for his toughness while playing behind some of the turnstile left tackles the Chargers have given him. Based on last year’s tape, Okung isn’t an improvement: He looks like a softer, more athletic version of King Dunlap. He definitely struggles against power rushers, and for all his athleticism, he also struggles to hold the edge. What’s left? He simply wasn’t effective last year — and now, he’s been rewarded like he was. Only in the NFL.

Why They Did It

A.J. Bouye, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars (five years, $67.5 million)

In baseball, you can play third base for the Mets on Tuesday, then get traded to the Yankees and play the next night. Football doesn’t work that way. If you’re paying top dollar for a corner, you have to make sure that you’re acquiring a skill set that can flourish in your system. Not all systems are the same, right? Jacksonville’s signing of Bouye makes sense on every front, from the system to the talent to the person. Houston wanted to re-sign Bouye — a great indicator — because he covered so well, he was always prepared, and he gained such great experience defending all the AFC South receivers. Why wouldn’t that work for Jacksonville? Bouye has the right temperament for the new team culture that Doug Marrone and Tom Coughlin are creating. He’s a good player and an even better fit.

Why They Did It

Stephon Gilmore, CB, New England Patriots (five years, $65 million)

Getting huge contracts done with talented players is always difficult, right? It’s even harder for an undrafted player who never received a modest signing bonus as a college free agent. The Patriots kept trying to sign Malcolm Butler to a long-term extension and kept coming up empty — the underpaid hero of Super Bowl XLIX is looking for the moon and then some. Who could blame him? The Patriots’ model during the Belichick years, though: If you cannot get a deal with one key guy, find another. That’s Gilmore. They finally heard the word YES from a young defensive starter (26 years old) who fits their defense well and ensures they still have a top-10 corner. Bill Belichick isn’t Stephen Stills — he doesn’t believe you “love the one you’re with,” he believes you love the one who will say yes.

Why They Did It

Ronald Leary, G, Denver Broncos (four years, $35 million)

Last year, the offensive line in Denver would have struggled to win a pillow fight at a 13-year-old’s sleepover. For a team that wanted to act tough, they weren’t firm inside and couldn’t knock anyone off the ball. You could have had Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, or David Lynch back there and it wouldn’t have mattered; the Broncos never controlled the line of scrimmage. They realized that they needed to become tougher, nastier, and way more physical. That’s Leary.

Why They Shouldn’t Have Done It

Torrey Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles (three years, $15 million)

The last thing you want to do in free agency is sign a player, then still have a need at his position … right? That’s the Torrey Smith signing. He already played for two teams that desperately needed a playmaking receiver: Baltimore and San Francisco. Both let him go — one over money, the other over performance. Smith might be fast, but he cannot catch or run crisp routes, and he’s never made big plays consistently. The Eagles seem like they’re chasing the ghost of DeSean Jackson; maybe they should have just brought DeSean back.

Why They Did It

Mike Glennon, QB, Chicago Bears (three years, $45 million)

The Mike Glennon contract is like when your wife comes home and shows you the slip that once listed for $500, only now, it’s $300 cheaper. Yes, the price is steep. Yes, he’s unproven as a 16-game starter. But that $19 million in guaranteed money — that’s the sales pitch. Forget the $45 million price tag. After one year, the Bears can walk away if it goes poorly. And they upgraded from a chemistry standpoint — instead of Jay Cutler pouting through another season, they brought in a quarterback who was liked by every coach from the old Bucs regime. He can make all the throws, and as a bonus, he won’t be a sourpuss on the sideline. It’s a move the Bears needed to make, only they didn’t have to go all in, for once.

Why They Did It

Larry Warford, G, New Orleans Saints (terms unknown)

As long as Drew Brees is in New Orleans, the Saints have to make sure their inside linemen can protect the pocket. That’s when Brees is at his best — when he feels outside pressure, senses the edge breaking down, and steps up to find passing lanes. Barely 6 feet tall, Brees rarely has passes batted down because he works the pocket so well. Warford helps there and with run blocking, too. It’s too bad he can’t also play defense.

Why They Shouldn’t Have Done It

Matt Kalil, T, Carolina Panthers (five years, $55.5 million)

I love offensive linemen more than anyone. Rarely will you read or hear me criticize a team for allocating money to its offensive line. But this one has me bewildered. So his brother Ryan plays for the Panthers? Great! Peaches and Herb told us that being reunited feels so good; I get it! You know what doesn’t feel so good? Watching Matt Kalil play left tackle. Every Vikings fan knows this. He struggled to handle the edge or play with power, and it’s pretty obvious that he will never live up to his top-5 draft selection. I understand the desire to protect Cam Newton, but what about protecting him with … good protectors?

Why They Did It

DeSean Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (three years, $35 million)

The Bucs needed a sidekick for Mike Evans — not a big power-forward-type receiver, but rather a quicker perimeter player. Jackson has averaged more than 17 yards per catch in his career and showed no signs of slowing down in Washington. If he can stay on the field, he gives Tampa Bay a home run hitter on both sides of the formation. In the defenseless NFC South, where shootouts are the norm, adding an explosive player like Jackson is a smart move. Instead of trying to help their version of Anthony Davis by adding a Boogie Cousins, the Bucs found their Andrew Wiggins for a more complementary fit.

Why They Shouldn’t Have Done It

Robert Woods, WR, Los Angeles Rams (five years, $39 million)

When your no. 1 receiver (Tavon Austin) is a luxury item who produces one touchdown a month, why splurge on a receiver with 12 career touchdowns who struggled with consistency in Buffalo? Robert Woods played at USC and knows shortcuts to the Coliseum, but he doesn’t know how to separate from man coverage, reliably catch the ball, and make big plays. This signing blew my mind. Get ready for next season when Jared Goff is holding the ball in the pocket waiting for Austin and Woods to get open. And waiting. And waiting. Sorry, Rams fans.

Why They Did It

Kevin Zeitler, G, Cleveland Browns (five years, $60 million)

Praise and the Cleveland Browns rarely end up in the same sentence … until now. The key to getting good, before you can become great, is to spend money on your offensive and defensive lines. Money rarely spoils offensive linemen; they keep bringing their lunch bucket to work every day. The Browns had the makings of a good line a few years ago but let it slip away, allowing a league-high 66 sacks last season (some were the fault of the quarterback, but that number is still far too high). Adding center J.C. Tretter and teaming Zeitler with guard Joel Bitonio, who reportedly signed an extension on Thursday, gives the middle of the line talent and stability. Now they can protect their quarterback. As long as he’s not …

Why They Did It

Brock “The Heist” Osweiler, traded to the Cleveland Browns (still counting his stack in a diner on Long Island)

The Heist strikes in the offseason once again! In Goodfellas, Jimmy Conway whacked everyone who knew about the Lufthansa Heist. In Houston, the Texans just sent a second-round pick to the Browns to salary-dump Osweiler and save $10 million, while Cleveland used its cap room to gain a valuable pick. It’s a win-win for both sides, as long as the Browns don’t kid themselves into believing the Heist is good enough to start for them. (Please, Cleveland, don’t talk yourself into this.) The Browns should follow the NBA’s model for salary dumps and buy out the Heist, just so he never sets foot in Cleveland and they never have the chance to start talking themselves into him. Now that Houston has admitted its mistake, we’ll never know how fortunate Broncos GM John Elway feels for being turned down by the Heist 12 months ago. Sometimes, “no” is the greatest sound of all.

Why They Did It

Calais Campbell, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars (four years, $60 million)

Remember the year that Jacksonville signed a big-name defensive lineman in free agency, only to release him two years later? Oh wait, that’s every year — happens like clockwork. Even when the Jags understood the importance of a great defensive line, their previous culture couldn’t bring the best out of those players. But Campbell differs from other high-priced free agents who came to Jacksonville for the coin for one reason: We already know he played hard in Arizona after earning his money. Sure, if Tom Coughlin wasn’t running things in Jacksonville, this move would worry me. But Campbell is a Coughlin-type guy; even entering his age-31 season, he’ll help a Jaguars defense that needs to become mentally tougher and much more physical, and I like him and Malik Jackson together. Campbell should give them two good years, at least, which is two more than Jacksonville normally gets with its UFA defensive line signings.