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2017 NFL Offseason: Five Worst Free Agent Signings

Like every year, bad deals were handed out. These were the worst.

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New York Jets v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The salary floor, forever increasing salary cap, a lack of fully guaranteed contracts, and the truly terrible being truly terrible because of poor drafts and not needing to re-sign their own players has turned NFL free agency into a beautiful blizzard of exchanged jerseys and dollars. With this comes awful contracts and great signings. Fat, black, bloody, dead money sores seeping through Over The Cap team pages and shiny additions part of the next playoff run. This offseason was no different. It was just as fun, with just as many silly and great contracts. Tomorrow I’ll write about the five best free agent deals; today are the five worst.

Honorable Mention: Menelik Watson, Denver Broncos

He’s very big and very bad.

5.) Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots: 5 Years, $65 Million, $40 Million Guaranteed

Aside from Adalius Thomas, Bill Belichick has always been right in free agency. He releases players at the perfect time. He signs players to below market, team friendly deals. He keeps the Patriots flexible despite winning twelve games every year. He trades draft picks for proven players since New England’s championship window is a horizon. His free agent endeavors quickly earn a title and then head off somewhere else for more money and less success.

In 2016, the strength of New England’s defense was their run defense. They were 4th in run defense DVOA and 23rd in pass defense DVOA. At first, signing Gilmore is easy and simple to love. The Pats had a bad pass defense. They paid for a corner to make it better.

The Pats’ pass defense was bad because they couldn’t rush the passer, and they gave up too many deep passes. Last season New England had 34 sacks, an adjusted sack rate of 5.1% (26th), and a pressure rate of 23.6% (26th). The only upgrade they made was trading for Kony Ealy, a good player who will forever be lost in Super Bowl lore, but it was far from enough to revolutionize a shoddy group. The pressure is going to continue to fall on the secondary.

Yet by signing Gilmore, New England did not correct their deep pass defense problems. Last season New England gave up 41 deep pass completions, tied for fourth-most in the league. Gilmore is known for knocking down passes and playing tight coverage, but he was awful against deep passes last season. In 2016, he gave up 9.2 yards a pass (156th), and the average air yards per pass he was targeted on was 15.2 yards (19th highest).

The only argument made in Gilmore’s favor is that he played press man coverage in a Cover One, blitz heavy, lost Bills’ defense, a defense that was ruined by the Ryan brothers’ gut-squiggling nonsense. However, the Pats still signed a player who has issues against deep passes while never upgrading their safety play or pass rush. In addition to that, they gave him an enormous contract that they are going to be stuck with for the next three years at least.

If it was any other team, I’d slit my palm open and shake hands that this deal is going to be a mess this year and a disaster moving forward. But it’s the Pats. They get away with everything. Belichick will probably rejigger the defense around and give Gilmore constant safety help, allow him to play more aggressive, and he’ll pick off ten passes during the 2017 season. I’ll feel dumb and I’ll learn yet again to never bother questioning what that hooded cretin conjures up.

4.) Pierre Garcon, San Francisco 49ers: 5 years, $47.5 Million, $20 Million Guaranteed

3.) Malcolm Smith, San Francisco 49ers: 5 years, $26.5 Million, $11.5 Million Guaranteed

Last offseason I wrote these same two posts as a guest on a different website that has been forever sucked into the deep dark and very spooky web. In it, I wrote about the signings of Coby Fleener, Chris Ivory, and J.R. Sweezy (all very smart) and complained about the signings of Janoris Jenkins, Malik Jackson, and Olivier Vernon (all very dumb). What I didn’t realize at the time is that if a team has cap space, it’s a smart idea to use it on top talent. I focused on the contracts and cap space, which are easy to get out of and quickly revolving, instead of the talent itself.

Both the Garcon and Smith signings fit the mold of the Jackson and Vernon signings from last year. A team has cap space, needs talent, and overpays for it. Malik Jackson isn’t the best defensive player in the league like he’s paid to be, but he’s a very good interior rusher; Jacksonville needed someone like him for a long time and had the space to add him. The Giants transformed their defense from 30th to 2nd in DVOA partly because of their signings, including Jenkins and Vernon. The difference between those signings from last year and the ones San Francisco made this year is that Jackson, Jenkins, and Vernon are incredible talents.

Garcon was productive last season. He caught 69% of his 114 targets for 1,041 yards and 3 touchdowns. He played in a quick passing offense and turned crosses and slants into churning yards. Routes in the short to intermediate parts of the field opened up because of his quickness. In San Francisco, he’s going to catch passes from Brian Hoyer, a player who can’t deal with pressure and can’t throw deep, but is known for understanding an offense and where to go with the ball. Garcon is playing under Kyle Shannahan who crafted the league’s best offense last year, a master at creating yards after the catch for his receivers. Additionally, San Francisco had $79 million in cap space last season and empty holes on its wide receiver depth chart.

This is why the 49ers signed Garcon. Yet Garcon is 30 years old. Before San Francisco can get rid of him, he’ll probably have already lost the signature quickness his game is molded around. The 49ers don’t have receiver talent. They are going to be bad next season. They are in a position to take chances on younger players, to learn what hits and what doesn’t. Instead of paying lots for a player who will probably deteriorate quicker than his contract, they should have taken some flyers on players like Cordarrelle Patterson or Terrelle Pryor. Leadership and scheme fit is only worth so much, and Garcon wasn’t worth the deal he got.

Signing former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith was an even worse decision. Smith played for the Raiders the last two seasons. He played 934 defensive snaps in 2016 and 1,141 the year before that. During this time, Smith was a terrible tackler, leading one of the league’s worst inside linebacker groups. In 2015, Oakland allowed 4.22 adjusted line yards on runs up the middle (27th) and 3.97 adjusted line yards (17th) last year. In both seasons, they had problems covering running backs.

The 49ers needed an inside linebacker. Smith was signed on March 8th. Six weeks later, in the 2017 NFL Draft, San Francisco traded back into the bottom of the first round and selected Reuben Foster. With Foster and Navorro Bowman on the roster, Smith will rarely see the field. San Francisco didn’t know they would draft Foster. That’s just how things worked out. Yet they were lucky and they are better off now to boot. Smith is bad, and he will rarely be on the field this season. He’ll be one of the fortunate few people alive who gets to hang out and collect millions of dollars without doing much of anything.

The 49ers had plenty of cap space this offseason. They were smart to spend it in an attempt to add talent to the roster. But they didn’t get the type of talent to warrant what they spent, and as a team in the midst of a rebuild, paying a 30 year old receiver and a former single game MVP a bunch of money aren’t the type of deals you make at this point of that franchise’s life cycle. They would have been better off saving the money, using contracts on multiple cheaper veterans, taking risks on players the rest of the league has passed up, or overpaying for some of the top talent available.

2.) Russell Okung, Los Angeles Chargers: 4 Years, $53 Million, $25 Million Guaranteed

1.) Matt Kalil, Carolina Panthers: 5 Years, $55.5 Million, $31 Million Guaranteed

It was a perfect storm for the tackle market to be ridiculous this offseason. Teams have caught on to what New England and other teams learned earlier this decade—that it’s more important to have two tackles than one incredible, blind side protecting left tackle. As a result, prices have gone up on right tackles, and the gap has narrowed between the pay checks they receive compared to their left-handed counterparts.

The other factor was the 2017 NFL Draft. A few months ago, only two tackles were selected in the first round. Going back to 2013, at least four tackles were taken in the first round. You’d have to go back to 2006 for the last time two or less tackles were selected in the first round. Overall, only 16 tackles were selected in 2017. The years before saw 18, 20, 11, and 17 selected. This class was thin on tackle talent, especially at the top level. As a result, teams were forced to use free agency to fill a critical need.

What happened was that most teams that needed a tackle spent a lot of money for shoddy players. The worst were Russell Okung and Matt Kalil.

At the start of last season, Russell Okung played well, especially in the run game. He moved to the second level and made some great one-on-one blocks in the final hurrah of Gary Kubiak’s outside zone scheme. It was surprising how well Okung played. But as the season progressed, the same problems troubled him. He had problems mirroring and using his hands in the pass game. He was a liability in pass protection. He was great at a hilariously negotiated one year contract for $5 million, but not at what San Diego Los Angeles gave him.

The Chargers signed Okung to an absurd contract and made him the highest paid tackle on a per year basis. They wanted to move on from King Dunlap, who is a comparable player on the field, after his below average play and domestic violence incident. The Chargers wanted to upgrade their pass protection to help the 35 year old Philip Rivers age with beauty and grace. Last season San Diego Los Angeles gave up 36 sacks and was 23rd in pressure rate. So they signed Okung and drafted two guards to correct the interior. But Rivers is one of the best quarterbacks in the league at playing through pressure, mitigating the importance of pass protection, especially on the exterior, and Okung isn’t close to a $13.25 million per year player.

The craziest of the bunch was Matt Kalil, who received a 5 year, $55.5 million contract because his brother plays there, I guess. Tackle is vital in Carolina’s offense. Cam Newton takes deep drops. He holds onto the ball for long spats of time and uses his obscene arm to split coverages and make throws that no quarterback should be able to make. Last season Newton was sacked 36 times, and Carolina ranked 18th in pressure rate. They didn’t pass protect well, Newton holds onto the ball, and Carolina’s tight scheme filled with fakes and quarterback runs to keep defenses unbalanced were well known last year, unlike the successful surprise they were in 2015.

But paying Kalil, a bad player as Pro Football Focus notes, as much as they did was skin-collecting crazy. Carolina would have been better off paying the same premium for Riley Reiff, Ricky Wagner, or Andrew Whitworth. For the same price, the Panthers could have snagged a tackle who is actually good at playing football. Even if they wanted Kalil for whatever reason, they should have been able to sign him to a cheaper and shorter contract.

It was a bad year to need a starting tackle, but the decisions these two teams made were even worse.