Why NFL free agency is often Fool’s Gold

Leave a comment

So we’ve just had a week of all NFL, all the time, of two mega-New York stories (Odell Beckham Jr., being traded by the Giants and Le’Veon Bell signing with the Jets) breaking within five hours, and the New York media machine going as wild as it can. Fans of the Detroit Patriots are fired up. The Raiders are going to the playoffs. J-E-T-S! Jets Jets Jets!

I am here to dump cold water on this.

Five very bad team stories of spending big in free agency:

• 1996: The Jets, 3-13 in 1995, signed Super Bowl QB Neil O’Donnell (to the third-highest quarterback contract ever) and tackles Jumbo Elliott and David Williams. O’Donnell started 0-6 and got yanked. New York finished 1-15 and fired the coaching staff.

• 2000: Washington, 8-8 in 1999, went wild in free agency, signing Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders and Jeff George to deals totaling $99 million on paper. Sanders lasted one sub-par year and retired, coach Norv Turner was canned in December, and Washington went 8-8, 8-8, 7-9 and 5-11 in the four years after the gold rush.

• 2009: Washington, which likes to win March, replayed its free-agent follies of a decade earlier, making the worst signing in free-agency history (Albert Haynesworth, seven years, $100 million, and he lasted two disastrous years) and a few others. Washington crashed to 4-12. Coach and GM: fired.

• 2011: Philadelphia, NFC East champs in 2010, worked the free market like no team in the 26-year history of free agency, led by president Joe Banner and GM Howie Roseman. ”They came out of the gate like wild men,” coach Andy Reid said. “Dream Team,” quarterback Vince Young christened the newbies—Nnamdi Asomugha, Ronnie Brown, Cullen Jenkins, Young, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and others. “Dream Team” went 8-8 and 4-12. Reid got fired.

• 2016: Jacksonville spent $199 million on good but not great players (Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, Chris Ivory, Kelvin Beachum). The reward: The Jags regressed from 5-11 in 2015 to 3-13 in 2016, and coach Gus Bradley got whacked in December.

I sense a trend.

“There are lots of mistakes made in free agency,” Cleveland GM John Dorsey said Saturday. “And lots of mistakes made early in free agency—when there are 32 teams competing for the best players, and you’re going to pay probably 20 percent more than makes sense.”

Sometimes high-priced imports work, and they improve a team mightily. Reggie White had great defensive impact as the first big free agent in 1993, and made it cool for free agents to work in Green Bay. Drew Brees (2006, San Diego to New Orleans) became one of the best quarterbacks ever. Andrew Whitworth (2017, Cincinnati to the Rams) has been one of the best left tackles of football for a growing and starry team. The Giants got a one-year pop out of Janoris Jenkins, Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon in 2016, and made the playoffs that year … but it was like a 5-Hour Energy jolt. The Giants crashed. And there are a lot more Haynesworths and Asomughas and ’96 Jets than there are even one-year success stories.

Just Look At 2018

While getting excited about the new class of free agents, remember these Pro Football Focus ratings of some of the richest players who changed teams in the 2018 free-agency class.

Kirk Cousins ($28 million per year) was PFF’s 11th-rated quarterback.
Case Keenum ($18 million per) was the 28th-rated quarterback.
Sammy Watkins ($16 million per) was the 38th-rated wide receiver.
Nate Solder ($15.5 million per) was the 38th-rated tackle.
Trumaine Johnson ($14.5 million per) was the 43rd-rated cornerback.
Allen Robinson ($14 million per) was the 35th-rated wide receiver.
Andrew Norwell ($13.3 million per) was the 13th-rated guard.
Malcolm Butler ($12.2 million per) was the 73rd-rated cornerback.
Ryan Jensen ($10.5 million per) was the 36th-rated center.

Seriously: How many GMs who signed those players, 12 months later, wish they hadn’t? Keenum in Denver, Watkins in Kansas City, Johnson in New York and Butler in Tennessee … Those would be the top on my list.

Read more from Football Morning in America here

Five NFL players who could become stars in 2019

Leave a comment

By Sam Monson, PFF Senior Analyst

One of my favorite aspects of PFF data and grading is how it can spot the obvious coming when it’s still some ways off on the horizon—getting ahead of the curve and identifying talent before it becomes self-evident. Every year there are players who excel in limited snaps before ultimately being handed a larger role and workload for their teams. When they continue dominating, we wonder how they were ever seen as anything other than superstars.

Case in point: When Joey Porter was a star and the sack leader for the Miami Dolphins back in 2009, coming off a 17.5-sack season, we at PFF were clamoring for his backup –- a former undrafted pass-rusher who had not long before been playing in Canada -– to get more snaps because he was generating pressure at a far greater rate than Porter. Cameron Wake ultimately went on to be one of the best pass rushers of the past decade and looked it from Day 1 if you were seeing beyond the box score numbers.

Such examples are everywhere, and each year it’s always an interesting exercise to take a look through the PFF grading and predict the players that could take that next step if they get the right opportunity. This past week we unveiled our PFF 50—a list of the best 50 players in football entering the season—but in this case let’s look a year from now and predict some players who could make that list in 2020.

Levi Wallace, CB, Buffalo Bills: If there’s a player with the backstory to rival Wake’s, it’s Wallace. With precisely zero scholarship offers coming out of high school, Wallace walked on at Alabama, and eventually earned a starting job. Then he had to do it all over again when he went undrafted before signing as a collegiate free agent with Buffalo. As a rookie in 2018, he earned the highest PFF grade of any first-year cornerback, along with the highest coverage grade, and wasn’t beaten for a catch longer than 29 yards all season. Though he played far fewer snaps than first-round selection Denzel Ward of Cleveland, Wallace looks like a potential star in the making if he’s given greater opportunity in year two.

Vita Vea, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: At the other end of the scale, you’ve got Vea, a player who went in the first round in 2018 but fell off the radar a little because he began the season injured, then took a little while to get going and ultimately didn’t produce the box score production people want to see. Vea ended up with only three sacks, but had 23 additional pressures as a pass-rusher, 17 of which came in the final six weeks of the season. Over that stretch of play, his overall PFF grade was 86.4, and he had a top-20 grade at his position, hinting at what’s to come.

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Minnesota Vikings: Changing positions in the NFL can be a significant adjustment, and sometimes it takes time. The Vikings drafted Alexander in 2016’s second round and moved him inside to the slot after he principally played outside at Clemson. His transition wasn’t smooth, but he has now seen his overall PFF grade improve each year of his NFL career: from 47.5 as a rookie, to 54.1 in 2017, climbing to 78.1 last year. Over the final half of the season, he was the highest-graded cornerback in the league at 88.2, surrendering just 80 receiving yards in a seven-game span. Alexander could emerge as a force with the right opportunity in 2019.

O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Another former first-round pick, Howard has yet to top 600 receiving yards or 35 receptions in a season, even while tight ends are breaking receiving records across the NFL. Dive deeper into the numbers, however, and Howard looks primed for a huge season with an uptick in opportunity. His overall PFF grade last season was 89.4, higher than any other tight end outside of San Francisco standout George Kittle. And on a yards per route basis, he was third behind only Kittle and Kansas City star Travis Kelce. His average depth of target was 11.3 yards downfield, a top-five mark in the league, and now the vertical threat he brings is being linked up with new Bucs coach Bruce Arians and an offense that lives down the field.

Jon Halapio, C, New York Giants: The Giants are revamping their offensive line in a major way, but one of the unsung components of the rebuild is at center, where Halapio could emerge as a foundation piece to the new-look front. He began last year as New York’s starter before going down with an injury after just 116 snaps of action. But in those snaps, he didn’t allow a single pressure, despite almost 50 pass-blocking snaps against the Jaguars and their array of pass-rushing weapons. With vastly improved players beside him, Halapio could prove to be a significant upgrade as a player who isn’t being talked about much heading into 2019.

Why Jameis Winston could win NFL passing title in 2019

Leave a comment

By Pro Football Focus

We think Jameis Winston will challenge for the passing yardage title in 2019. Last year he trailed only Josh Allen in average depth of target. These throws put Winston in a position to do great things at times (he was second among quarterbacks in the percentage of throws we grade as “positive”), as well as bad things (he was 21st in limiting negatively-graded throws). New Bucs head coach Bruce Arians has a track record of succeeding with high-variance quarterbacks like Winston.  In 2015 Carson Palmer had an MVP-caliber season under Arians, posting roughly the same average depth of target as Winston in 2018 and leading the league in percentage of positively-graded throws.  With Mike EvansChris Godwin and O.J. Howard a very capable trio of pass catchers, look for Winston to either make good on his 2015 draft position or give the Bucs no other option but to find his replacement the following year.