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The Best Bang-for-Your-Buck Moves of NFL Free Agency

As marquee players inked headline-grabbing contracts, a number of teams were busy making shrewd but potentially crucial deals. Which teams maximized their value in the early part of the league’s free-agency period?

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The early part of the NFL’s free agency period was a bonanza, producing a slew of big-money deals and blockbuster trades. The Lions inked Trey Flowers to a five-year, $90 million pact, the Raiders made Trent Brown the league’s highest paid tackle, the Jaguars gave Nick Foles over $50 million in guarantees, and two of the league’s best receivers—Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr.—were sent packing in trades. But while those high-profile moves grabbed most of the headlines, plenty of less-heralded but potentially crucial contracts got done. Here are a few of free agency’s best value signings and trades: players who look positioned to outplay their salaries or cost of acquisition and make a major impact for their teams in 2019.

C Matt Paradis and OT Daryl Williams, Panthers

The Panthers went into free agency with the goal of revamping their offensive line, signing former Broncos center Matt Paradis to a three-year, $29 million deal while re-upping right tackle Daryl Williams on a one-year, $6 million pact. Combined with the team’s decision to cut overpaid left tackle Matt Kalil, these two relative bargains could seriously upgrade a unit that will be tasked with protecting Cam Newton and his surgically repaired throwing shoulder in 2019.

Paradis, who replaces recently retired longtime stalwart Ryan Kalil, was limited to nine games last year after breaking his leg but finished second at his position in PFF’s overall grading, behind only the Eagles’ Jason Kelce. He performed well in both the run game and in pass protection, giving up just five pressures and committing two penalties on 569 snaps while clearing run lanes for the Broncos’ top-tier rush offense. The fibula injury he sustained last season is a question mark—and, per John Elway, the reason Denver didn’t pursue Paradis harder—but the 29-year-old former Bronco has elite potential while coming in at just seventh in average annual value and 11th in guaranteed money at his position.

The Williams contract is another injury-related discount for the team. He missed most of last season with a knee injury, and after testing free-agency waters, the 26-year-old decided to take a one-year prove-it deal to stay in Charlotte. Williams has the chance to show he can get back to his 2017 second-team All-Pro form, and Carolina gets a starting-caliber right tackle with top-echelon upside for just $6 million; it’s a low-risk move in the short term that doesn’t hurt the team’s long-term cap if Williams’s play slips.

CB Jason Verrett, 49ers

The Niners get a low-risk, high-upside injury flier of their own in former Chargers cornerback Jason Verrett. The 27-year-old former first-round pick and 2015 Pro Bowler signed a one-year, $3.6 million deal with San Francisco in the hopes of jumpstarting a career that’s stalled over the past three years because of multiple major injuries. When healthy, Verrett’s one of the top cover men in the league, showing fluid athleticism and ball skills.

Unfortunately, Verrett has played in just five games dating back to the start of the 2016 season, with a torn ACL and torn Achilles tendon keeping him out of action for long stretches. Now, he’ll compete with up-and-down starter Ahkello Witherspoon and 2018 third-rounder Tarvarius Moore for the job opposite Richard Sherman. There’s no guarantee Verrett will be able to return to his pre-injury form, but if he can—and then stay healthy—the Niners will have gotten a major free-agency steal.

CB Bryce Callahan, Broncos

Callahan’s new three-year, $21 million contract with the Broncos, which includes $10 million guaranteed, isn’t exactly chump change, but does come in well below the top of the market. The former Bear has developed into one of the best slot corners in the NFL: He graded out 11th among all cornerbacks last year, per Pro Football Focus, surrendering just one touchdown and an 80.5 passer rating on 472 coverage snaps. He ranked seventh in yards per coverage snap (0.72) and tied for 13th in coverage snaps per target (8.5), per PFF.

Contracts for nickel corners still lag far behind those of their brethren on the outside, but Callahan’s a top player at his position and represents excellent value relative to the key role he’ll play in Denver’s scheme. In a division that features pass-catchers like Antonio Brown, Keenan Allen, and others, Callahan’s deal could end up looking like a huge bargain in short order.

DE Michael Bennett, Patriots

I’m not sure how the Patriots always seem to add top-quality veteran players for pennies on the dollar, but here we are again. New England acquired Philly pass rusher Michael Bennett for a late-round swap of 2020 picks (the Eagles send their 2020 seventh-round pick along with Bennett in exchange for the Patriots’ 2020 fifth-round pick), adding a still-dominant pocket disruptor to fill the role of the recently departed Flowers for what amounts to peanuts.

The 33-year-old Bennett racked up 9.0 sacks and 68 pressures in 2018—tied with Khalil Mack for eighth among all defensive linemen—and comes with a very manageable $7.2 million cap hit in 2019. Bennett is a perfect fit in Bill Belichick’s hybrid scheme too, capable of lining up on the edge or rushing from the inside.

OT Marcus Gilbert, Cardinals

In general, I’m a fan of trading picks for proven players, especially when the compensation is a late-round selection. The draft is a crapshoot: Even early picks are rolls of the dice, and as you get into the later rounds, the odds of finding a contributor go way down. That’s why I liked the move the Cardinals made in acquiring offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert for a 2019 sixth-round pick (no. 207 overall).

The former Steelers lineman has missed 20 games over the past two seasons (including four to a suspension for violating the league policy against performance-enhancing substances), but if he can stay on the field in 2019, the Cardinals will have gotten an above-average starter on the offensive line for the price of a throwaway late-round pick. Whether he’s protecting incumbent starter Josh Rosen or soon-to-be rookie signal-caller Kyler Murray, Gilbert is a big add for a unit that gave up the second-most pressures (219) in the league last year, per PFF.

S Eric Weddle, Rams

While Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, and Earl Thomas reset the safety market with respective big-money contracts, Weddle took a two-year deal worth up to $12.5 million with the Rams. The two-time first-team All-Pro safety is heading into the twilight of his career at age 34 but hasn’t let his play slip a whole lot so far. He gives Los Angeles a rangy, versatile replacement for Lamarcus Joyner, who signed a four-year, $42 million deal with the Raiders, and provides veteran leadership for a defense that will see a lot of turnover from last season and into 2019.

S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Bears

The sting Bears fans felt watching Adrian Amos sign a four-year, $36 million deal with the Packers surely subsided some when Chicago signed former Green Bay and Washington safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to an exceedingly cheap one-year, $3.5 million deal. Clinton-Dix is not as dynamic as the guy he’s replacing, but he’s an experienced and versatile starter who’s reliable in coverage, physical against the run, and comes in at a fraction of the cost. Paired with ascending star Eddie Jackson, the Bears should still get solid play from the safety spot in 2019 plus gain some cap flexibility beyond.

LB Shaq Barrett, Buccaneers

Barrett’s a perfect flier for the pass-rush-needy Buccaneers, who inked the former Broncos outside linebacker to a one-year deal worth up to $5 million. Barrett showed plenty of promise playing a rotational role in his five years in Denver—he outplayed former first-rounder Shane Ray and even finished second on the team with 43 pressures in 2017, per PFF.

After getting pushed back down the depth chart last year with the team’s selection of Bradley Chubb, his production dipped. But now in Tampa Bay, Barrett’s got a good chance to win a starting spot and break out. He’s a natural fit in the team’s new 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and brings a combination of athleticism, explosiveness, and versatility to his new squad.

OT Ty Nsekhe, Bills

The two-year deal worth up to $14.5 million that the Bills gave tackle Ty Nsekhe provides value in multiple ways. First and foremost, the swing tackle—who’s performed well in spot duty and in his 10 starts over the past two seasons—brings upside as a bookend starter opposite Dion Dawkins and has the versatility to fill in at multiple positions on the line should injuries crop up. Past that, though, the signing gives the Bills the hidden bonus of increased flexibility going into the draft. With Nsekhe in the mix, Buffalo can avoid reaching for an offensive lineman with the ninth overall pick if the board doesn’t fall their way or address another position of need knowing that it’s got a quality backup plan in place to protect sophomore passer Josh Allen.

LB K.J. Wright, Seahawks

With linebackers C.J. Mosley, Anthony Barr, and Kwon Alexander all combining to reset the linebacker market with big-money contracts last week, Wright’s modest two-year, $15.5 million deal with the Seahawks flew far under the radar. The 29-year-old veteran struggled with a knee injury last year that limited him to just five games, but when healthy, Wright is one of the top off-ball outside linebackers in the game. He combines extraordinary length (he’s 6-foot-4 with an 80-inch wingspan) with top-tier instincts, reliability in both run support and coverage, and the ability to get after the passer. The health of his knee will be key, but Seattle’s defense should see a big boost getting Wright back into the lineup—and he returns at a bargain rate.