Just a few years ago NFL free agency was considered a minefield. Star players reach free agency easily in basketball, where teams have less control over players, and in baseball, where teams often want to reduce payroll. Neither is applicable in football. The NFL collective bargaining agreement makes keeping good players easy and (within the context of a billion-dollar business) cheap. For years, free agents in football were by definition players their previous teams had seen day in, day out for years and decided they were better off without. That’s a red flag. With multiple teams bidding on the same players hoping to capitalize on potential, those red flags get expensive.
Some of these free-agency factors have changed. Schemes are changing more rapidly than ever, making players with different skill sets more valuable. Player-tracking, which has been widely available to every team for only the past two seasons, has given teams with beefy analytic departments an edge on what to identify. Most importantly, aggressiveness is in after years of risk-averse decision-making. All of this has led to more free-agency activity than in the past, and we are seeing the dividends of it on the field this year. At the season’s midway point, let’s look at the free agents signed this year who have had the largest impact. We are looking at players who changed teams, not re-signed. That removes Teddy Bridgewater, who reupped with the Saints. It also removes linebacker Anthony Barr, who verbally agreed to a deal with the Jets and then reneged and went back to Minnesota (that now looks like a wise move).
Za’Darius and Preston Smith, Pass Rushers, Green Bay Packers
For a dozen years Packers general manager Ted Thompson avoided free agency like swine flu. But his successor, Brian Gutekunst, has made it clear he’s willing to spend some money. In 2018, Gutekunst signed tight end Jimmy Graham to a deal with $11 million guaranteed at signing, suggesting the Packers’ penchant for penny-pinching was over. This year, Gutekunst went further and signed two of the best pass rushers available. Baltimore’s Za’Darius Smith was a 2015 fourth-rounder out of Kentucky who had 8.5 sacks and 25 quarterback hits for the Ravens in 16 games in 2018. Gutekunst gave him a deal paying $50 million over the first three years of the contract. The Packers also signed Preston Smith, a former second-round pick out of Mississippi State who had 24.5 sacks in four seasons in Washington, to a deal paying $27.5 million over the first two years of the contract.
The Smiths (no relation) entered Week 8 with 24 quarterback hits, just four behind J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, who had the most quarterback hits by a pair of teammates. The impact has spread to Green Bay’s entire defense. Last year the Packers were the 29th-best defense by Football Outsiders’ DVOA. This year they rank seventh through Week 7. Last year they allowed the 11th-most points per game, and this season they are tied for the 11th-fewest. But it’s not just the Smiths’ stats that are affecting the team. They have changed Green Bay’s culture and served as a crucial bridge between new head coach Matt LaFleur and his players.
“I don’t mean to be broad or vague,” Aaron Rodgers told The Ringer’s Robert Mays, “but the energy of those two especially is contagious. To be specific, it’s a charisma. And not everybody has that. When you’re around those people, there’s a magnetic quality where they attract you into a conversation. There’s a smile, there’s a positivity. You just kind of want to be around it more.”
Justin Houston Pass Rusher, Indianapolis Colts
The Colts signed Houston to a two-year deal with $18.5 million guaranteed this offseason after the Chiefs cut him to clear cap space. For a team with money to spend and hoping to make the playoffs, it was a low-risk gamble on a high-upside player. In 2014, Houston had a league-leading 22 sacks for Kansas City and was named to the All-Pro first-team. But from 2015 to 2018 he missed 21 games with a lingering knee issue. This year he looks worth the gamble the Colts took. He leads Indy in sacks (five), tackles for loss (six), and quarterback hits (nine) through seven games. Houston has 31 pass pressures this year, just three behind Chicago’s Khalil Mack in the same amount of games (he ranks 19th among players with at least 175 pass rush snaps this year). His play is even more important after the Colts lost breakout lineman Kemoko Turay to an ankle injury.
Houston’s two best games of the season have been two of Indy’s most important. He dominated his former team on Sunday Night Football when the Colts gave the Chiefs their first loss of the season, and then hit Deshaun Watson four times in their Week 7 win over the Texans. The Colts are leaning on Houston, and with the Colts a half-game ahead of the division-rival Texans, they are happy Justin is giving Houston problems.
Shaquil Barrett, Pass Rusher, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Football analyst Brian Burke once calculated that teams pay roughly $300,000 for a single sack. That was six years ago. The salary cap is now more than 50 percent higher than when Burke ran his numbers, so let’s ballpark the current sack bounty at $450,000 in 2019. Shaquil Barrett has 10 sacks this year, the most in the league. The Buccaneers signed Barrett to a $4 million contract, so by our back-of-the-napkin math, he has returned the team’s investment and then some in just seven games. That does not include his league lead in forced fumbles (four) or ranking in the top 10 in tackles for loss. He was one of four players to get nine sacks in the first four games of the year since they became a statistic in 1982. With Jason Pierre-Paul returning to the Bucs this week, Barrett will have an even easier time with offensive lines unable to solely focus on stopping him.
Trey Flowers, Pass Rusher, Detroit Lions
Here were Pro Football Focus’s highest-graded edge defenders of 2018.
No. 1: Calais Campbell, Jacksonville
No. 2: J.J. Watt, Houston
No. 3: Trey Flowers, New England
No. 4: Khalil Mack, Chicago
No. 4: Von Miller, Denver
That’s four guys who match the eyeball test and Trey Flowers. But it was that kind of impact that led Detroit to sign Flowers to a deal in March that will pay him $56 million guaranteed over the first three years of the contract. Unlike Barrett, Flowers did not immediately blow people away, but in the past month, he has finally flashed the dominance the Lions were seeking.
The most memorable moment of his season were the two phantom hands to the face penalties in the fourth quarter against the Packers that cost Detroit a win. Lost in the refereeing fracas was that Flowers spent large stretches of the game dominating Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari, who is considered by many to be the league’s best. Last week, Flowers embarrassed former teammate and current Giants left tackle Nate Solder, sacking Daniel Jones on back-to-back fourth-quarter plays that essentially ended the game. Flowers is getting going in the passing game, but he’s also excellent against the run. He is tied for the third-most run stops, tackles that prevent a run play from being a success, per PFF, and he is also third in the percentage of run plays where he makes a run stop. Flowers may not be famous, but he is well-rounded and getting better as the season goes.
John Brown, Wide Receiver, Buffalo Bills
Brown is within 2 receiving yards per game of DeAndre Hopkins (75.3), has the same number of receiving touchdowns as Travis Kelce (two), and the same number of receptions as Amari Cooper, Mike Evans, and Larry Fitzgerald (38). As Field Yates of ESPN noted, the only players with 50 receiving yards in every game their team has played this season are Brown and New Orleans’s Michael Thomas. In March, the 29-year-old speedster signed a three-year, $11.7 million deal with Buffalo. Given how Brown is playing, it’s one of the best veteran receiver contracts in football. He has added a vertical dimension to Buffalo’s offense the team has lacked, but the surprise has been his reliability on underneath routes.
Mark Ingram, Running Back, Baltimore Ravens
It’s not an accident that Ingram is the first running back on this list. Running backs have become notoriously replaceable in recent years. But Ingram’s three-year, $15 million deal (which was guaranteed for only one year and $6.5 million) has paid off for the Ravens. Ingram, not Lamar Jackson, leads the team in rushing attempts (99). Jackson leads Baltimore in yards on the ground, but Ingram still ranks 13th in the league in rushing yards per game with 67.1, and his seven rushing scores are only behind Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey, and Green Bay’s Aaron Jones. He’s also a 29-year-old veteran who provides experience to an offense brimming with young players at quarterback (Lamar Jackson is 22), receiver (ditto for Marquise Brown), and tight end (Mark Andrews is 23). Two weeks ago after Baltimore’s signature win over the Seahawks, head coach John Harbaugh quoted what Ingram told the team the night before the game.
“If everybody does their best, it will be more than enough.”
Ingram is on pace for one of the best years of his career, and it’s more than enough for the Ravens.
Cordarrelle Patterson, Kick Returner, Chicago Bears
Patterson signed a two-year, $10 million deal with Chicago, and he’s the only kick returner worth that kind of cash. He leads all qualified kick returners in yards (417) and yards per return (32.1), and is one of just four players to return a kick for a touchdown this season. That’s a big reason the Bears were the no. 1 ranked special teams in football by Football Outsiders DVOA through seven weeks.
Patterson has seven career kick returns for a touchdown, just one shy of the all-time record shared by Josh Cribbs and Leon Washington. But Cribbs had 426 career returns and Washington had 292. Patterson has had just 189 career returns, or just over half the amount of Washington. There’s a serious chance that Patterson, 28, captures the record before he retires. If he is a Bear when he does it, that would give the Bears quite the returner legacy since Devin Hester holds the all-time record for punt return touchdowns (14).
Jamie Collins, Linebacker, New England Patriots
The 8-0 2019 New England Patriots are as good on defense as the 18-1 2007 Patriots were on offense, and Collins is the only player they added this offseason who has gotten significant playing time. Collins was a Pats star who was exiled in the middle of the 2016 season to the Browns for a third-round pick (perhaps for freelancing on assignments too much). The Pats nearly paid the price in Super Bowl LI when they fell behind Atlanta 28-3 as the Falcons gashed the Patriots in places Collins excelled, but he was forgotten after the comeback win.
After three forgettable years in Cleveland, Collins returned to the Patriots in May for a one-year, $2 million deal after going unsigned for two months. In eight games, he has been phenomenal. Collins is a member of the linebacking corps that has dubbed itself The Boogeymen (they are the ones who had Sam Darnold seeing ghosts). Along with Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, Collins is a huge reason the Patriots have 19 interceptions vs. two passing touchdowns allowed in an era of football when passing touchdowns are at an all-time high and interception rates are at an all-time low. Collins is just one piece of the Patriots’ defensive puzzle that also includes Bill Belichick taking over game planning duties, a collection of talented players who’ve all been in New England’s system for years, and a remarkably healthy unit halfway through the season. But Collins’s addition has helped make them historic.