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12 Underrated NFL Free Agency Moves That Could Pay Off

You heard about most of the QB movement last week, but some of the most important signings and trades last week didn’t involve a signal-caller

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What if I told you that there have been multiple—nay, dozens—of free-agent signings that did not involve Tom Brady? This little-known fact may have been lost amid the coverage of Brady’s departure from New England, which closed one chapter of football history and opened another. If any NFL stories found their way onto your phone this week, they probably included Brady signing with the Bucs, Philip Rivers signing with the Colts, Tommy to Tampa, Teddy Bridgewater making his way to Carolina as Cam Newton gets pushed out, TB12 to TB, DeAndre Hopkins getting traded to Arizona for David Johnson, Brady leaving New England, Stefon Diggs to Buffalo, and Tom Brady signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But some of the most impactful free-agent signings for the 2020 season are the ones that weren’t noteworthy enough to warrant a push notification. Here are a dozen deals that were not pushworthy, but might push a borderline playoff team over the edge or prove a wise investment in the near future.

DE Robert Quinn to the Chicago Bears

Deal: Five years for $70 million
Actual commitment: Two years for $30 million

Somewhere, Khalil Mack is smiling. This move gives Mack his most talented edge-rushing partner since Bruce Irvin in Oakland. Last year Quinn played in Dallas, where he complemented DeMarcus Lawrence and racked up more sacks and quarterback pressures than the star pass rusher while playing fewer games. Quinn’s outproducing Lawrence was less about being talented and more about winning one-on-one matchups the offensive line offered when they were focused on stopping Lawrence. Quinn’s quarterback-pressure rate on PFF ranked just behind J.J. Watt, Myles Garrett, and NFL sack leader Shaq Barrett. Quinn figures to see plenty of one-on-one matchups with Mack and a healthy Akiem Hicks lining up alongside him.

Quinn turns 30 in May and has not been able to replicate his 19-sack 2013 season, but he is an improvement over Leonard Floyd, who was released by the Bears shortly after Quinn’s signing. Chicago drafted Floyd no. 9 in 2016, but he never developed into a game-changing player capable of dominating one-on-one matchups.

T Bryan Bulaga to the Los Angeles Chargers

Deal: Three years for $30 million
Actual commitment: Two years for $19.3 million

A colleague once told me to never be cheap about things that separate you and the ground: tires, shoes, mattresses. Wise NFL teams abide by the same rule when it comes to things that separate their quarterback and the ground. No team needed to upgrade their tackle spot as badly as the Chargers. There were 55 tackles who played at least 700 snaps in 2019, and Chargers right tackle Sam Tevi graded as the fourth-worst pass blocker in that group, according to PFF. Left tackle Trent Scott was dead last. (Mercifully, Scott just signed with the Chargers.) The only team that had a lesser pass-blocking grade than the Chargers in 2019 was Miami, who barely pretended to field an NFL-caliber line.

Bulaga has been solid protecting Aaron Rodgers’s sight side since 2010. He has dealt with injuries over the years, but he ranked no. 26 in pass-blocking grade last year—far better than anyone on the Chargers. For a team that will probably draft a quarterback with the no. 6 pick (or trade up to do so), investing in the offensive line is the best thing they can do. Hopefully he’ll keep the Chargers’ next quarterback off the ground.

CB Darius Slay to the Philadelphia Eagles

Detroit gets: Third-rounder (no. 85), fifth-rounder (no. 166)
Philadelphia gets: Slay

After trading for Slay, the Eagles signed him to a contract extension with $30 million guaranteed that makes him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL on an average annual basis. The trade was a relative bargain to acquire one of the best cornerbacks in football, especially considering the Rams gave up two first-round picks for Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey last year. The Eagles have needed cornerback help for the past few years—and even more so after last week, when safety and captain Malcolm Jenkins was essentially released by the team, and cornerback Jalen Mills was re-signed with the understanding that he will move to safety. Slay is one of the few cornerbacks who can shadow a no. 1 receiver effectively for an entire game. Philly didn’t have many holes, and this plugs their biggest one.

RB Melvin Gordon to Denver

Deal: Two years for $16 million
Actual commitment: Two years for $13.5 million

It’s cheating to include Gordon on this list. He’s a push-notification guy. His fantasy football status and holdout make him far more relevant than his production for the Chargers would normally warrant. Aside from 2017, Gordon has never rushed for more than 1,000 yards or started more than 13 games in a season. Last year Gordon held out for more money but was outplayed by running back Austin Ekeler, who went undrafted in 2017. The Broncos have their own undrafted gem in Phillip Lindsay, but Lindsay seems to now be in a rotation with Gordon, who will likely take a lot of touches from 2018 third-round pick Royce Freeman. If Gordon has one thing going for him, it’s that the Broncos line is likely to be a lot better in 2020 than the Chargers in 2019.

DT Jurrell Casey to the Denver Broncos

Titans get: Seventh-round pick (no. 237)
Broncos get: Casey

There are 255 selections in the NFL draft, so when the Titans accepted the no. 237 pick for Casey, it showed how much they wanted to get out of the $40 million remaining on his contract. This is not one of those deals that gets fans excited, but it is one that probably pissed off the offensive coordinators in the AFC West. The Titans felt that Casey, who turned 30 in December, had declined too much to pay him the remaining $40 million on his contract. He is no longer in his prime, but he has made the Pro Bowl each of the last five seasons and is an above-average run stuffer who can hold his own in the pass game. He’ll likely have an easier time rushing the passer in Denver, where he’ll be playing alongside edge rushers Von Miller and 2018 no. 5 pick Bradley Chubb. Casey’s deal is bloated enough that Denver will need to restructure it in a year or three, but the Broncos defensive line may be strong enough (literally) to make this trade worth it by midseason.

WR Emmanuel Sanders to the New Orleans Saints

Deal: Two years for $16 million
Actual commitment: Unknown

This is the first time Michael Thomas has played with a serious no. 2 receiver since New Orleans traded Brandin Cooks to New England in 2017. Sanders comes to the Saints fresh off of nearly catching a potentially career-altering touchdown that Jimmy Garoppolo just overthrew in Super Bowl LIV. Now Sanders has signed with the Saints, whom he torched for 157 yards in December in his best receiving game since 2016. The Saints are getting a 33-year-old who tore his Achilles less than 18 months ago, but Sanders is far better than soon-to-be 35-year-old Ted Ginn Jr., who has somehow been the Saints’ no. 2 receiver since the Cooks trade.

Thomas has established himself as the league’s best receiver, but the Saints have barely filled their depth chart behind him. He has led the team in catches each of the last three years (and the league each of the last two), but New Orleans’s no. 2 wideout has not ranked higher than fourth on the team in catches since 2016. Every non-Thomas Saints wide receiver had fewer catches in 2018 and 2019 combined (135) than Thomas had in 2019 alone (149). Sanders will allow the Saints to do even more than they usually do in their offense.

TE Eric Ebron to the Steelers

Deal: Two years for $12 million
Actual commitment: Unknown

Dads across America think their favorite football team can win a Super Bowl if they just find a good tight end. Someone who can run, someone who can block, someone who can catch the ball on third down and in the red zone. Nobody is easier to talk yourself into as a season-changer than Ebron, the soon-to-be-27-year-old über-athletic tight end who Detroit drafted no. 10 in 2014 but didn’t break out until 2018, when he scored 13 touchdowns with the Colts. But those touchdowns were less about Ebron’s talent in the red zone and more a function of Indianapolis’s offense in 2018. Ebron’s Colts career ended with surgeries on both ankles, which likely led to his reasonable contract with the Steelers of $12 million across two years. He is more talented than past Steelers tight ends like Vance McDonald, but his injury history and drops can be even more frustrating. Steelers fans are likely going to love and hate him, often in the same game.

DT Michael Brockers (and DE Calais Campbell) to the Baltimore Ravens

Brockers’s deal: Three years for $30 million
Actual commitment: Two years for $21 million
Jacksonville gets: Fifth-round pick (no. 170)
Baltimore gets: Campbell

The Ravens don’t have many weaknesses, but one of them in 2019 was the defensive line. Last year they let pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs leave in free agency, and they made up for it by spending lavishly in the secondary. The team hired Seahawks legend and future Hall of Famer Earl Thomas to play safety and traded at midseason for All-Pro Marcus Peters to play cornerback. The Ravens flipped the conventional team-building script and skimped on the front seven and invested in the secondary, and the result was the fourth-most-efficient defense in football. They were a Super Bowl favorite before losing in the divisional round, so they didn’t need to make a ton of changes. They did anyway.

This offseason the Ravens said “screw it” and threw money at their defensive line. They franchise-tagged breakout edge rusher Matt Judon, who had 9.5 sacks and 33 quarterback hits in 2019. They traded for Campbell, the older and off-brand version of Khalil Mack (he has 31.5 sacks over the last three years). Then the Ravens signed Brockers, Aaron Donald’s longtime partner who would have been the highest-graded regular defensive tackle for the Ravens on PFF in 2019. Baltimore has significantly improved five positions—both edge rusher spots, defensive tackle, free safety, and cornerback—in the last year on defense. (You may have also heard the Ravens made some improvements on offense in that time.) If the Patriots are the NFL’s savviest front office, the Ravens are in second place.

CB Kendall Fuller (back) to Washington

Fuller’s deal: Four years for roughly $40 million
Actual commitment: Unknown

Fuller was one of the hidden heroes for Kansas City’s Super Bowl run last season, and now he is heading home. The Maryland native who attended Virginia Tech and was drafted by Washington in the third round of 2016 was dealt to Kansas City in the Alex Smith deal in 2018, but now he is coming back with a Super Bowl ring as part of head coach Ron Rivera’s rebuild. Washington has a surprising amount of talent along its defensive line, with three first-round picks (Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, and Montez Sweat) and will likely be in position to draft Ohio State’s Chase Young at no. 2 this April. That group could rush a lot of quarterbacks, and Fuller could be the main beneficiary of a lot of interceptions like the one he snagged in Super Bowl LIV.

QB Marcus Mariota to the Las Vegas Raiders

Deal: Two years for $17.6 million
Actual commitment: One year for $7.5 million

First off, it will take a long time until “Las Vegas Raiders” looks normal. Second, it will be a long time until we think about Marcus Mariota again. After five forgettable years in Tennessee (his most memorable throw went to himself), Mariota signed a deal to be Derek Carr’s backup in Oakl—dammit—Las Vegas. Mariota suffered an ulnar nerve injury in his throwing arm in Week 1 of the 2018 season, which also impacted his offseason going into 2019, so he hasn’t had a full summer to prepare at full health in a long time. Mariota will get to learn from Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, who is likely happy to have found a #GrudenGrinder. Mariota is just a few years younger than Carr, who is on thin ice. If we learned anything from the Titans’s shelling out for Ryan Tannehill even with Mariota under contract, it pays to pay for a backup. If health has been holding Mariota back more than we knew, then the former no. 2 pick has about as high an upside as any backup quarterback in the NFL.

DE Mario Addison to Buffalo

Deal: Three years for $30.5 million
Actual commitment: One year for $14 million

Addison is just one of the former Panthers that Buffalo has signed under head coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane, both of whom came from the Panthers. Cornerback Josh Norman and linebacker A.J. Klein also joined the Bills this month, but Addison is the most impactful signing of them all. He has had at least six sacks in each of the last six seasons and at least nine sacks in each of the past four. Those modest figures fit right into a Bills defense that is light on starpower but heavy on above-average contributors. The Bills had the sixth-most-efficient defense in 2019 and the second-most-efficient defense in 2018 despite having few recognizable names beyond cornerback Tre’Davious White. Addison can help fill the role left by the departing Shaq Lawson, who was a better run defender but worse pass rusher than Addison. He can help the Bills pursue the most wide-open AFC East race in 20 years now that the Patriots are without, well, you know.