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NFL Free Agency Superlatives: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly From the League’s Spending Spree

Nick Foles was the biggest gamble. Landon Collins got the most surprising payday. Who else made noise on the opening day of action?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL’s oxymoronic (and probably pointless) legal tampering period kicked off on Monday and quickly produced a slew of big-money handshake deals. Reports on terms came in fast and furious, and while real free agency doesn’t officially start until 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, teams managed to throw around hundreds of millions of dollars. To recap the action, let’s take a look at all the superlatives from Monday’s free-agency bonanza.

Biggest Blockbuster: OT Trent Brown to the Raiders

Brown was deemed expendable when San Francisco selected Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft, and the 49ers sent Brown packing to New England in short order. The 6-foot-8, 380-pound tackle parlayed that trade—and his steady, reliable performance in 2018—into not only a Super Bowl ring, but also a brand-new four-year, $66 million deal with the Oakland Raiders that makes him the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history (in average annual value). He’ll get $36.75 million in guaranteed money on his new contract.

Brown takes over at the Raiders’ left tackle spot, which pushes 2018 first-rounder Kolton Miller over to the right side of the line. That’s welcome news for quarterback Derek Carr, who lost trusty pass-protecting guard Kelechi Osemele in a trade to the Jets on Sunday. The Raiders almost surely overpaid to land their new blindside protector—Brown wasn’t elite in any blocking category last season—but he is a major upgrade over Miller. A few metrics paint a picture of just how big of an improvement Oakland could see at that crucial spot next year: In 2018, Brown gave up 35 pressures—including three sacks—on 608 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus. Miller, meanwhile, gave up almost twice that—65 pressures, including 16 sacks—on 632 pass-blocking snaps. Per ESPN, Brown’s pass-block win percentage came in above average at 82 percent, compared to Miller’s 70 percent, which ranked fourth worst among tackles with at least 300 pass blocks. Finally, per Sports Info Solutions, Brown had the third-lowest adjusted blown-block percentage among 35 qualifying tackles, while Miller ranked 27th.

The blockbuster deal means the Raiders likely don’t have enough cash to remain in the Le’Veon Bell sweepstakes, but between that and Saturday’s acquisition of Antonio Brown, Oakland’s offense appears to be on the up-and-up. Brown isn’t exactly Joe Thomas, but he could help give Carr the extra beat or two he needs to feed the ball to his brand-new playmaker.

Biggest Boom-or-Bust Deal: QB Nick Foles to the Jaguars

This move has been all but assumed for weeks. But Foles’s reported four-year, $88 million deal—which, with incentives, could reach a value of up to $102 million—comes with a healthy dose of sticker shock. The veteran passer gets $50 million guaranteed, moves past some elite names at the position in average annual earnings ($22 million per year), and represents another massive gamble for a Jacksonville front office that bet on Blake Bortles and lost miserably.

On one hand, there’s this:

Jokes aside, Foles does bring the upside to turn the Jaguars’ anemic offense around. The longtime vet resurrected his career in Philly while filling in during crunch time the past two seasons for Carson Wentz. His recent postseason exploits have become the stuff of legend: In five playoff starts, Foles has led the Eagles to a 4-1 record (including a Super Bowl win against the Patriots), shown the ability to operate under pressure, and thrown with accuracy to complete 68 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns, five picks, and a 97.3 passer rating while taking just three sacks. If the veteran signal-caller can play anywhere close to that level for the Jaguars, it might be enough to make his new team a playoff contender again in 2019.

On the other hand, Foles owns one of the strangest career arcs of any quarterback in modern history, and there’s an awful lot of tape out there that would lead one to believe he’s not very good. In fact, comparing raw regular-season numbers from 2014 to 2018, Foles’s and Bortles’s stats are alarmingly similar. If Jacksonville gets the bad version of Foles, everyone in that front office will lose their jobs—especially considering the report that the Jags, who weren’t really bidding against anyone for Foles’s services, paid him big money to “ensure his status as the leader of the team.” Uh … what?

Foles’s success or failure could come down to how the team builds around its new franchise passer. Jacksonville needs to continue to add talent to its pass-catching corps and bolster its offensive line, but more importantly, the team may need to revamp its offensive scheme. Foles ran a huge number of RPOs, screens, and zero- and one-step passing concepts in Philadelphia, and new Jaguars offensive coordinator John DeFilippo (who coached Foles in 2017 as the Eagles quarterbacks coach) must implement a system that draws on what his quarterback does best. If DeFilippo can do that, we might look back on this signing as a stroke of genius. But Foles has to prove that he can operate outside the confines of Philly’s innovative, quarterback-friendly scheme—and there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that he can’t.

Best Fit: DT Malik Jackson to the Eagles

A deep, versatile, and disruptive defensive line has been the heart and soul of the Eagles defense through the past few years. Executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman made a big move on Monday to bolster the ranks of that ever-important group and signed the recently released former Jaguar to a three-year, $30 million pact. Jackson is a perfect fit in Philly’s defensive front: He is a slashing, athletic interior penetrator who can line up next to Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, and Derek Barnett to wreak havoc.

As The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia points out, last year the Eagles relied heavily on getting pressure without blitzing (they sent five or more pass rushers just 16.7 percent of the time, which was last in the league, according to Sportradar), a strategy that Jackson can help with immensely. Jackson generated just 3.5 sacks, but did rack up 51 pressures, per PFF, a stat that ranked ninth among interior defenders. Per Sports Info Solutions, he ranked seventh in pressure percentage (9.2 percent) among qualifying defensive tackles. He can still get after the quarterback and create disruption from the inside. That’s exactly what Philly needs after trading away Michael Bennett and declining Tim Jernigan’s option.

Easiest Call: OT Jason Peters Back to the Eagles

Peters may not be the player he was earlier in his career, but he’s easily the best option Philly had at the position, and he represents a massive upgrade over backup/swing tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Now two years removed from an ACL tear, Peters should remain a reliable blindside protector for quarterback Carson Wentz. His one-year, $10 million deal (with $5 million guaranteed) is chump change for an above-average starting left tackle. Ask the Raiders.

Most Head-Scratching Deal: LB Kwon Alexander to the 49ers

San Francisco GM John Lynch has never been afraid to dole out top-of-market deals to players lacking top-of-market leverage (see Kyle Juszczyk and Jerick McKinnon), and he continued that tradition on Monday by handing former Buccaneers linebacker Alexander a four-year, $54 million deal that includes $27 million guaranteed. That makes Alexander, who’s coming off an ACL tear, the highest-paid off-ball linebacker in the NFL in average annual value ($13.5 million per year)—surpassing perennial All-Pros like Bobby Wagner, Luke Kuechly, and Lavonte David.

That’s an awful lot of scratch for a player who’s missed 14 games to injury in his four-year career (plus another four for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances in 2015), who misses an awful lot of tackles, and who’s made just one Pro Bowl … as an alternate. So what were Lynch and Co. thinking? Well, for starters, the team must believe that Alexander, who’s racked up six interceptions and six forced fumbles in his career, can give the defense a much-needed boost in the turnover category. After grabbing a league-low seven takeaways in 2018, anything helps—but this one feels like a massive overpay.

Most Surprising Payday: S Landon Collins to the Redskins

Just when it was starting to feel like NFL teams stopped caring about the safety position altogether, the Redskins stepped in and handed a nominal “box” safety a massive six-year, $84 million deal with $44.5 million guaranteed. That $14 million average annual value matches Tyrann Mathieu’s brand-new three-year, $42 million deal, tying the two for the title of the highest-paid safeties, an honor typically reserved for free safeties like the Honey Badger—or, at least, interchangeable safeties who regularly line up in coverage deep down the field. Collins is an excellent defender who’s recorded more defensive stops since 2015 than any other safety, but he lined up deep on just 109 of 886 snaps for the Giants last season, per PFF—making that huge payday come as a bit of a shock.

But Collins may be more versatile than his 2018 usage implied. The Redskins’ new defensive star spent most of his time lined up at the free safety spot during his rookie year in 2015, and then split time fairly evenly between the free safety and strong safety spots in his breakout All-Pro sophomore campaign, per PFF charting. He played in the box more often in 2017 and 2018, but Washington may have bigger plans in mind for the former Giant. If Collins proves that he can still line up deep, in the slot, or in the box seamlessly depending on coverage schemes, he’ll have a much better chance to live up to his massive new deal.

Biggest Need Filled: S Tyrann Mathieu to the Chiefs

Kansas City’s porous defense struggled badly in 2018 and finished second-to-last in yards allowed and 24th in points surrendered. The Chiefs fielded one of the most fearsome pass-rush units in the NFL, but injuries and ineffectiveness in the back seven was a constant thorn in the team’s side. What Kansas City needed most in free agency was to add a big-impact defender that to group, and they did just that in signing Mathieu to a market-matching, three-year, $42 million pact. The beauty in signing the Honey Badger is that he doesn’t just add talent at one spot in the defense, but can contribute all over the field, whether he’s lining up at deep safety, in the slot, or in the box. He’s a coverage safety, a fearsome run defender, a blitzer, and a cornerback all rolled into one—and he gives the Chiefs a much-needed boost in their biggest area of need.

Most Obvious Connection: DE Trey Flowers to the Lions

Much of the risk in outside free agency comes in the uncertainty of how a player will fit in their new scheme and locker room, so it’s common for new head coaches to pursue former players—they simply know more about their personality, work ethic, and how they can use him. Because of that, it was never too tough to connect the dots between the Lions and former Patriots pass rusher Flowers. Detroit was in desperate need of a top-tier edge presence and had plenty of inside information on Flowers—the top defensive end on the market after Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney, Seattle’s Frank Clark, Dallas’s Demarcus Lawrence, and Kansas City’s Dee Ford got franchise tags—from the time Lions head coach Matt Patricia and Flowers were together in New England.

The Lions knew they could seamlessly drop Flowers into their defensive system and locker room, and they worked aggressively in handing the free-agent pass rusher a huge, five-year deal that will average between $16 million and $17 million per year. Flowers, who’s posted 14.0 sacks, 45 quarterback hits, and 124 total pressures in the past two seasons, should be the capstone of a line that also includes Damon Harrison, A’Shawn Robinson, and Da’Shawn Hand.

Most Anticlimactic Move: WR Devin Funchess to the Colts

The Colts came into Monday’s legal tampering period with a league-high $101 million and change in cap space, and almost left without spending any of it. Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard was conspicuously quiet for much of the day, and the team made a relatively minor move late in the afternoon by signing veteran receiver Funchess to a one-year prove-it deal worth up to $13 million (though the base value may be considerably lower, per Pro Football Talk). Funchess, who is still just 24 years old (only about five months older than Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley, who was a rookie last year), had a disappointing performance in 2018 (44 catches, 549 yards, and four touchdowns) after posting breakout numbers the year before (63 catches, 840 yards, and eight touchdowns), but could give Indianapolis a big-bodied red zone target on the outside that the team lacked last year. It’s a low-risk, potentially high-reward deal for the Colts, and while it’s certainly not a blockbuster move, it could be just the first of more moves for the NFL’s free-agency big stack.

Worst Smokescreen: OLB Terrell Suggs to the Cardinals

What he said: