Free agency opened in the NFL with the legal tampering period and the deals came in furiously. Most teams had a pretty clear idea of who they wanted and at what price. Of course, not all activity is created equal. Some of the teams did very well on paper. Others, however, were not so fortunate.
So who’s who? Well, that is the fun part. Adding talent isn’t a shoo-in way to a passing mark. Some teams would have been better off embracing the chance to rebuild and others passed on the chance at that one difference-maker. Others still seemed to be operating in a different world.
First up, the AFC North…
Best and Worst from the AFC North Free Agency
Best Move: Trading for Calais Campbell (and Signing Michael Brockers)
Yes, we are beginning by breaking the rules slightly. This is, obviously, a pair of additions to the perennial fearsome Baltimore Ravens front. But they’ll need both to make up for the loss of Michael Pierce, the mammoth defensive tackle who left for the Minnesota Vikings this offseason. Michael Brockers (6-5, 305 lbs) and Calais Campbell (6-8, 300 lbs) are bringing the beef.
One might have been enough, but after giving up 195 rushing yards to Derrick Henry in the playoffs, bringing in both is probably a good idea. What gives the addition of Campbell the edge? The fact that Baltimore was able to take advantage of the Jacksonville Jaguars and steal the massive run stuffer for a 5th-round pick; the same cost the Washington Redskins paid to the Carolina Panthers for Kyle Allen.
Worst Move: Marshal Yanda Retiring
This one is obviously not in the Ravens control. Marshal Yanda has been one of the most consistent guards in all of football over the last decade-plus. Initially drafted by Baltimore in the third round (86th overall) of the 2007 NFL draft, Yanda started no fewer than 12 games in 10 out of his 13 seasons.
An eight-time Pro Bowler, two-time All-Pro, and a Super Bowl champion. Careers don’t get much more decorated than Yanda’s. It cannot be understated what he meant to the top-ranked rushing attack of the Ravens. And keeping pressure out of 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson’s lap. They placed a second-round tender on center Matt Skura, maintaining some continuity inside. But he’s no Yanda.
Next Move: Signing Matt Judon Long-Term
This move is really pending on where Matt Judon is playing next season. Baltimore slapped him with the franchise tag and the thought was “duh”. He led the Ravens with 9.5 sacks without much of a compliment and is just entering his prime. But rumors are swirling that he could be moved with the Ravens cap situation getting tight after landing Campbell, Brockers, et al.
16.5 sacks over two years aren’t eye-popping numbers. But he also has 67 pressures and 27 quarterback knockdowns over that same span. After Baltimore lost Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs last offseason, the next best pass-rushing “threat” of the last two years was Patrick Onwuasor. He has a whopping eight sacks over that time and was outplayed by Tyus Bowser last year.
Best Move: Signing D.J. Reader to replace Andrew Billings
Usually, when teams lose a rotation player (as Andrew Billings was for the Cincinnati Bengals), they replace them with a cheap option later in free agency or via the draft. The Bengals went above and beyond by replacing Billings with a far superior version of himself in Houston Texans defensive lineman, D.J. Reader.
You might not know much about Reader because he plays defensive end in an odd (3-4) defensive front. He is mostly there to take up blockers and allow the pass-rush to get home. But he, conversely to Billings has seen his sack totals rise each of the last three seasons (to a lustrous 2.5) and increase his pressures from seven to 12.
Worst Move: Tagging A.J. Green
It doesn’t matter who the quarterback is for the Bengals next season. Andy Dalton or a rookie (sup, Joe Burrow?) will need weapons to throw to. And for much of the last nine years, A.J. Green has been the best to wear the stripes. Still, tagging him at $18 million seems a bit misguided. Nobody is trading for him at that number.
Green now narrowly edges Dalton for the highest cap hit on the team. That’s doubly bad because Dalton should be on his way out. Keeping a veteran receiver around to ease the burden on a rookie quarterback isn’t necessarily a bad idea. But when that receiver has only played nine games in the last two years, including zero last year, it’s fair to question the move.
Next Move: Draft a Cornerback
You won’t hear many suggesting this as a must for Cincinnati. After all, they just signed a pair of former Vikings corners in Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. Waynes especially will be viewed as addressing the secondary simply by virtue of his three-year, $42 million ($15 million in guarantees) contract. That would be a mistake.
Waynes (75 percent) and Alexander (65 percent) gave up too many catches with the Vikings. They also both allowed passer ratings over 84 with Waynes allowing a healthy 107.9 rating. Luckily for the Bengals, neither has to be a shutdown corner. That responsibility falls on William Jackson… Draft a corner, Cincy.
Best Move: Signing Jack Conklin
Cleveland Browns starting quarterback Baker Mayfield has been on the wrong side of a few statistical categories the past two seasons. Thanks to Jameis Winston’s record-setting 2019, not much attention was paid to Mayfield being second in interceptions with 21. He’s second (to Winston) over the last two seasons with 35 picks thrown.
So why is adding Jack Conklin (three-years, $42 million) a great move? At least part of what ailed Mayfield was having to be on the run much of the time. Greg Robinson is worried about the wrong kind of blocks at the moment, but Conklin is leaps and bounds above both he and Chris Hubbard. They still need to add at least one more lineman in the draft. But Conklin is a nice place to start.
Worst Move: Making Austin Hooper the Highest-Paid TE
This is less about the talent level of Austin Hooper than it is a reality check to the Browns that throwing money at the problem won’t fix it. They were already loaded with high-end weapons in Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry at wide receiver as well as a talented backfield duo in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Regardless of Hooper’s ability, there’s still just one football.
David Njoku, Cleveland’s first-round pick just two seasons ago, hasn’t developed as they wanted. But, in his defense, young tight ends tend to take a while to get acclimated to the NFL. Head coach Kevin Stefanski orchestrated a Vikings offense that was among the heaviest in two tight end usage. Still, if your quarterback needs all this, you might need a quarterback.
Next Move: Draft a Bookend for Myles Garrett
Myles Garrett fell short of his sack total from the previous year but arguably had a better year. His 10 sacks indeed fell short of the 13.5 he put up in 2018. But he did that with a full, 16-game schedule. Due to his own recklessness, he missed six games last season. That means he was averaging a sack a game before getting suspended. But he was almost literally a one-man show.
The next best pass-rusher in Cleveland was Larry Ogunjobi. His 5.5 sacks are respectable for an interior lineman. But they absolutely stink as the complement to such a dominant force like Garrett. Cleveland should address this early in the draft. With needs along the offensive line and at linebacker, though, they may have to rely on a rotation of players.
Best Move: Tagging Bud Dupree
It’s simple really. If you aren’t spending money on a quarterback or someone to protect him, targeting someone to make opposing passers uneasy. The Pittsburgh Steelers have that in Bud Dupree. Actually, they have two when you include T.J. Watt. But Dupree was far from a hit to begin his career as his running mate was.
Dupree had 11.5 sacks total the previous two seasons so it isn’t a surprise that Pittsburgh isn’t exactly beating down his door with a long-term extension. Detractors will rightfully point out that Watt’s presence cannot be overstated. That may be the case, but Dupree still had to get home and he did. Now he just has to do it again
Worst Move: Losing Javon Hargrave
Folks don’t usually stump for nose tackles but here we are. When the Steelers lost Javon Hargrave to the Philadelphia Eagles, they lost more than just a space-eater. After all, nose tackles aren’t supposed to sack quarterbacks. Hargrave has 10.5 sacks over the last two years; that’s notable with him playing alongside Watt, Dupree, Cameron Heyward, and Stephon Tuitt.
Granted, there was no way Pittsburgh could afford him at the price Philly paid. As much of an impact as he had, it’s not worth handing him the sixth-richest contract for a defensive tackle in terms of the average value. The saddest part of all of this is that Hargrave won’t be a Steeler for life like his predecessor in the Steel City, Casey Hampton.
Next Move: Draft Big Ben’s Heir Apparent
Pittsburgh found ways to win after Ben Roethlisberger went down. They did it with defense, though, because their trio of backup quarterbacks fell short of making up for the loss of Roethlisberger. They got eight starts out of Mason Rudolph, who went 5-3. They also got six starts out of Devlin Hodges; an undrafted rookie free agent who went 3-3. Neither is an option.
Unfortunately, the Steelers are without their first-round (Minkah Fitzpatrick) this year but they likely weren’t in the market for a top-tier passer anyway. But would they spend their second-round? Roethlisberger is 38 and has openly considered retirement in the past. He’s reportedly all in now, but Pittsburgh should be proactive here or risk repeating last year.