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2017 NFL Offseason: Five Best Free Agent Signings

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Like every year, good deals were handed out. These were the best.

Buffalo Bills v Oakland Raiders
They can’t keep getting away with it.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/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. Yesterday I wrote about the five worst deals of the 2017 offseason. Today I bring you the five best.

5.) Torrey Smith, Philadelphia Eagles: 3 Years, $15 Million, $500,000 Guaranteed

See write-up on Alshon Jeffery below.

4.) Mike Gillislee, New England Patriots: 2 Years, $6.4 Million, $1.5 Million Guaranteed

This offseason, New England did what no defending champion ever does—turn their roster over. They traded for Dwayne Allen, Brandin Cooks, and Kony Ealy. They lost substantial contributors in Logan Ryan, Martellus Bennett, Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard, and LaGarrette Blount. They signed Stephon Gilmore and two running backs, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee.

It’s absurd what the Patriots accomplished this offseason. It’s unbelievable that they are able to keep getting away with everything. Of these signings, both Burkhead and Gilllislee are the types of deals that are going to drive everyone insane once the season starts.

Burkhead is the usual gritty, “sneaky athletic” skill player that New England falls into and leaves everyone wondering, “Who the hell is that?”. If you watched Cincinnati last year, you know who he is. He was the Bengals’ best running back in 2016. He picked up 344 yards on 74 carries, good for 4.6 yards an attempt. Supposed better backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill averaged 3.8 and 3.7 yards behind the same offensive line. In addition to that, Burkhead caught 20 passes for 145 yards. He’s going to be a terror for inside linebackers to cover. Oh, and of course he only cost New England one year and $3.15 million.

The even better move, and possibly the steal of the offseason, was New England snatching Gillislee from Buffalo. The Bills didn’t match New England’s offer, and in the process they lost the most efficient running back in the NFL last season. In 2016, Gillislee had 101 carries. On those, he picked up 577 yards, scored 8 touchdowns, and averaged 5.7 yards per carry. As far as efficiency goes, he was the DVOA champion at 45%, had a success rate of 66%, and was 4th in DYAR (which measures total value), with 256.

Chances are you didn’t watch Buffalo play much last year. As a result, you missed out on a beautiful power run scheme with LeSean McCoy and Gillislee waiting for pullers like Godot and bursting past defenders once their blocks were set up. One GIF doesn’t do him justice. Just cue up the highlights and become very upset.

Gillislee will probably be New England’s primary running back this season. He’ll have 200+ carries or so and be unbelievable running behind the pulling Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney, plus cowboy collar lead blocking James Develin. New England stole the most efficient back in the league last season and replaced Blount with a better version that’s younger, faster, and has better eyesight for a teensy-tiny price price. I hope the compensatory pick was worth it, Buffalo.

3.) Andrew Whitworth, Los Angeles Rams: 3 Years, $33.75 Million, $15 Million Guaranteed

Whitworth is an old football player. He is 35 years old. He spent the last eleven years of his life playing offensive line for the Cincinnati Bengals, during which he made three Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team, all after his age 31 season. Despite his age, Whitworth was great last year. He was the best offensive lineman the Bengals had, and he’s one of the few tackles who can combine incredible pass blocking with great run blocking.

In L.A., Whitworth is going to be locked in at left tackle, which allows the Rams to move Greg Robinson to his first and more natural position, left guard. During his career, Robinson has shown off physical ability, strength and quickness, but he has never figured out how to play tackle. His movement is clunky. His stance is out of whack. He never figured out the importance of space and when to time his punch. By moving to guard, Robinson gets to go back home, and he also gets to play next to one of the best left tackles in the league.

This is beautiful news for Jared Goff. The former first round pick arrived in Los Angeles thanks to a bounty of picks. After spending the beginning part of the season watching Case Keenum run for his life, Goff got the chance to do the same, but did it in an even worse way. 230 passes were thrown, and Goff finished last in DVOA, DYAR, QBR, and my favorite, net yards an attempt, with 3.75. 3.75! Even [Name Redacted] scoffs at that figure. Some have already written Goff off as a bust, but he faced one of the worst quarterback situations in the league in his first year of playing professional football. No matter how bad he was (and he was really bad), Goff is still too young to give up on him. Signing Whitworth, coupled with a possible improvement from Robinson, will be a nice step to level the evaluation field for the Rams so they can find out what they have in their quarterback.

Additionally, as I wrote yesterday, the tackle market was absurd for men in their late twenties getting a second contract.

The contract the Rams signed Whitworth to is flexible. If his gown turns to rags before midnight, the Rams can get out after one season and pay less than $6 million in dead money. The Rams not only got one of the best tackles on the market, but they got him at an ideal contract for his age and skill.

2.) Logan Ryan, Tennessee Titans: 3 Years, $30 Million, $16 Million Guaranteed

I’m still mad at the Tennessee Titans for never giving us a Week 17 AFC South title game. It was manifest destiny. It was clumped together at the bottom of a mug. It was up there in the stars, a million miles away. It was...well, you get it. The Titans started the deprivation by losing to the Jags in Week 16, Then Randy Bullock finished it by missing a game-winning field goal. The Texans were handed another division title. Personal grief and hurt feelings aside, the Titans had a great season last year. They competed, their exotic smash mouth identity ended up being smart instead of dumb as hell like everyone expected, and Marcus Mariota proved he’s a franchise quarterback.

The team still had its flaws, and like all teams, they went to work improving them this offseason. Pass defense was one of these dark marks for Tennessee. The Titans had a mediocre pass rush that collected 40 sacks with Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan, and Jurrell Casey collecting 24.5 of them. Despite their average pass rush, the Titans had a pass defense DVOA of 17.6%, ranking 26th last season. Brice McCain played surprisingly well in the nickel corner spot, and Jason McCourty admirably held down the first corner spot. The fissure was located at the second corner position.

Perrish Cox and Antwon Blake shared the second cornerback spot for the majority of the season. Together they each were among the worst in the league in success rate, both posting a rate less than 43%. To make matters worse, each gave up more than two yards after the catch. Opposing WR2s averaged 66.2 yards a game and a DVOA of 22.2%, the second-highest in the league.

To clear this up, the Titans signed Logan Ryan, Jonathan Cyprien, and drafted Adoree’ Jackson with their second first round pick. They also ended up cutting McCourty. With these moves, Tennessee possibly addressed both outside cornerback positions and added a safety in Cyprien that can help in the run game and as a possible freeway blitzer.

The Ryan contract cost the Titans $10 million a year and only $16 million guaranteed, a contract they can get out of after this season. That’s a lovely deal for a player who has been great these last two years as a full-time starter in New England. It also comes at a much lower price than what A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore received.

1.) Alshon Jeffery, Philadelphia Eagles: 1 Year, $9.5 Million, $8.75 Million Guaranteed

The Carson Wentz wagon wasn’t chained to the Earth to start last year. It was flying through the sky like a car we were expected to have in the 1960s, or some ungodly three-headed fire breathing creature as the Eagles won their first three games by at least two scores. Then everything went back to as it was. The Eagles were upset, angry, underperforming, and finished 7-9.

The reason for this departure from the heavens was Philadelphia’s passing offense. Their pass offense DVOA was ranked 25th at 0.9%. Head Coach Doug Pederson brought the same checkdown offense he (and Andy Reid) used in Kansas City. This handicapped the offense to Wentz’s dump-offs and uninspiring one-read quick tosses. Wentz threw 607 passes, fifth-most in the league...but picked up only 3,782 yards. The quarterbacks in his immediate vicinity threw for 5,208, 4,317, 3,905, 4,428, and 4,917 yards on a similar number of pass attempts. This is a roundabout way to say that Wentz was safe, cautious, and didn’t push the ball downfield, finishing 28th in net yards an attempt with 5.58.

To improve this egregious flaw, the Eagles signed two deep threats to team-friendly deals. Torrey Smith is paid on a year-to-year basis with almost none of his salary guaranteed, and Jeffery signed a faux franchise tag deal for a lesser amount, allowing him to bring it for one year and move on to more commas next season. Both players spring into the deep part of the defense and from there have success in different ways.

Smith is a pure burner. He uses speed and double moves to get behind the secondary so that nothing is in front of him. Over his career, he has averaged 16.8, 17.4, 17.4, 15.7, 20.1, and 13.4 yards a reception, all while never posting a catch rate above 55%. He’s a running coin toss. Because of his age, catch rate, and drop-off, thanks to Chip Kelly’s offense and Colin Kaepernick’s troubles throwing down the field, Smith is playing without a financial safety net this season.

Jeffery is a downfield target, but in a different mold. He’s a sideline route runner who just needs to the ball placed in his vicinity for him to come down with it. Making catches in traffic and leaping over smaller people is what he does. In his best season in 2013, Jeffery posted 16.0 yards a reception. He then dropped off the next two seasons and came back to his true self in 2016, averaging 15.8 yards a catch last season.

The Eagles were a playoff caliber team last year. They had great special teams, run game, and defense. The pass offense clipped their wings. By signing these receivers, Philadelphia has possibly addressed their deep passing issues and added pieces for Wentz to make a jump. If it works out, the Eagles will be a dynamic playoff team. If it doesn’t, they can move on from both these players quickly without impacting their salary cap. The Eagles solved their biggest need with two low risk, high reward signings.