Free agency is dead. Unknown cadavers are iced down, waiting to be popped open. The cremains are dumped into sentimental settings. Organs are pulsating inside of their new perfect match. Skin has been pasted and is clinging to a new set of bones. Teams have stopped signing players to new contracts. They are sitting still and waiting until after the 2018 NFL Draft is completed so they can sew up the rest of the holes with players dying to get added to another roster.
Hundreds of contracts were given out. These were good, bad, or perfectly fine. We don’t care bout the mediocre. We want the extremes. The best. The worst. The mediocre are ignored. With this mantra in mind, these were the five worst free agent signings handed out in the NFL this offseason.
Honorable Mention: Albert Wilson (3 years, $24 million), Trey Burton (4 years, $32 million), Ryan Jensen (4 years, $42 million),
5.) Jerrick McKinnon: 4 years, $30 million ($15.7 million guaranteed)
This isn’t an indictment of McKinnon as a football player. He’s an explosive back who’s a must have in any postmodern NFL offense because of his ability to run and catch the football. This is an indictment of the contract he received. The San Francisco 49ers will make him the second highest paid running back in football this season. In a market where running backs are fungible, in a world where injuries take them from us too soon, in a year with a deep running back draft class, the 49ers decided to go all in on a pretty good player. Silly.
McKinnon has been fine as a runner and better as a receiver. Last season he averaged 3.8 yards an attempt and picked up 570 yards on 150 carries. He finished 40th in DVOA and DYAR. This was behind an improved Minnesota offensive line. This unit was better than the crud that wailed around in 2016, where he and Matt Asiata averaged almost 3.9 and 3.8 yards a carry. Behind this new group, McKinnon was outshined by Dalvin Cook and ran about as well as Latavius Murray.
In the passing game, McKinnon wasn’t efficient, but he caught what was tossed his way. McKinnon caught 51 of his 68 targets and averaged 8.3 yards a reception. He sucked down the dump-off targets he received.
Additionally, McKinnon was able to break some tackles last year. He snuck out of 43 tackles and finished 20th with a broken tackle rate of 21.4% according to Football Outsiders Charting data. If you want to make an argument for why the 49ers gave him this much money, that is the biggest reason for McKinnon’s new deal. He was grouped with players like Derrick Henry and Jordan Howard. This is the semblance of untapped potential.
But like my grandfather said after being told there would be a 20 minute wait for a table at Jim’s, “Hell, it ain’t that good.” McKinnon has shown bursts of effectiveness, but never in his career has he produced or exuded enough talent to procure a contract like this. Yeah, I know Kyle Shanahan loves multidimensional backs who can attack defenses both ways. Yet this isn’t the player to go all in on for this amount. Like the Kyle Juszczyk signing, the 49ers went all in on a guy they liked but paid up and beyond the usual market value. In the process, San Francisco signed a player who has fought to scrape mediocre.
4.) Sammy Watkins: 3 years, $48 million ($30 million guaranteed)
The Kansas City Chiefs snatched the baton from Alex Smith and gave it to Patrick Mahomes. Smith was a better downfield passer than he was given credit for last year, but he cooled off as the year came to an end. With Mahomes’ arm strength, the Chiefs have a need for more sideline-attacking wide receivers. After losing Travis Kelce in the wild card round and having their offense implode as the result, Kansas City looked to add another lethal weapon to ensure this wouldn’t happen again.
So the Chiefs went with Watkins. Last season Watkins was efficient in an offense that created easy throws for Jared Goff, but Watkins didn’t have the volume you would expect. Watkins finished sixth in receiving DVOA and picked up 15.2 yards a reception, but he had only 39 catches and a catch rate of 55.7%. Watkins disappeared at times last year and the year before that with the Bills.
As a route runner, there aren’t many players who can match Watkins in precise stepping and body manipulation. The guy gets open. He beats man coverage. But for someone who’s as good as a route runner as he is, Watkins should have produced more. Over his entire career, he’s struggled at attacking the ball. Rather than go up and get it, he keeps his hands low and cradles the football, transforming it into a soft, suckling mammal. He caught only 5 of his 21 targets that traveled 15 yards or further. When I think about Watkins, I think about this reception attempt during the Rams’ comeback attempt against the Falcons in last year’s postseason. Low, weak, zero attack. The ball floats right through his hands.
After years of running an offense with a lot of fast, little players, the Chiefs are betting on talent, upside, and draft pedigree. They signed a player they haven’t had on their roster since back when Dwayne Bowe liked to play football. By doing so, they are paying Watkins an enormous amount to be better than he’s been up to this point of his career.
3.) Nate Solder: 4 years, $62 million ($34.8 million guaranteed)
Those poor 18 year olds taking principles of microeconomics, struggling to grasp the difference between quantity demand and quantity demanded, should look to this contract to unlock the secrets of “if this happens, then the graph does this.”
The Solder contract is a classic case of a team overpaying to acquire a scarce resource. The Giants couldn’t roll with Ereck Flowers as their left tackle next year. At age 37, Eli Manning is a winter lizard in the pocket. There isn’t a tackle prospect worthy of the fourth overall pick in the draft next week. Discontented tackles weren’t available to be acquired via trade. Like last year, a year that made Russell Okung one of the highest paid players in football, the tackle market was backwash at the bottom of the bottle.
The Giants made Solder an incredibly rich man because of all these conditions being met. There was demand. There wasn’t supply. The supply curve shifted right. Prices increased.
What the Giants got by paying Solder is a mediocre player. The other teams who lost out to New York, like the Texans, are going to be smiling wide and wild after staring into their drink this spring. Solder doesn’t offer much as a run blocker. He struggles against bull rushes and inside moves. His ability to meet at the point of attack makes up for his weak punch. Pass rushes are never fully suffocated with him blocking. On top of all that, the Patriots constantly helped Solder by chipping with their tight ends and keeping their running back on his side to help in case of an emergency.
So, yeah, the Giants found a player to play a position they were desperate to fill. But by doing so, they locked themselves into a mediocre player until 2020 at the earliest.
2.) Paul Richardson: 5 years, $40 million ($16.5 million guaranteed)
One of the rules of free agency is to not pay for the outlier, or if you are a positive ball of hydrogen-devouring light, don’t pay for the breakout. These things usually don’t work out. Rarely is this a continuation of future performance. Usually it ends with the team paying for something that happened and not what will happen again.
Richardson had a swell season last year. He caught 44 of his 80 targets, picked up 703 yards, had 18.0 (!) yards a reception, and finished 20th in DVOA. Because of last year, he was rewarded at the conclusion of his rookie contract. But prior to 2016, Richardson had 271, 40, and 288 receiving yards from his rookie year onward.
Washington paid for the breakout. They paid a 6’0” deep threat wide receiver after he finally had a season of big production. 362 of Richardson’s 703 yards last year came on passes that traveled further than fifteen yards downfield. His new quarterback, Alex Smith, completed 46 of his 90 downfield passes for 1,604 yards and threw 13 touchdowns to 2 interceptions last year. Jamison Crowder had 11 downfield targets last year, and Josh Doctson caught only 6 of his 25 downfield targets. Washington needed a player with Richardson’s skill set, but they picked the wrong player to attach themselves to.
Washington made the same mistake last year. Last season they signed Terrelle Pryor to a one-year, $6 million contract. It didn’t work out. Pryor played in only 9 games and was thrown only 37 passes. With Jay Gruden’s rhythm passing West Coast offense and Pryor’s sideline isolation route running, the fit was never there, even if the money was.
Pryor’s was a one-year deal and easy to digest. This one isn’t. If Washington cuts Richardson in 2020, they’d be stuck paying $6 million in dead money. They’d have to pay $9 million if things fall apart after this season. An offense that needed a burner would have been better off taking a flyer or going after Allen Robinson instead. Things rarely work out when you pay for the outlier.
1.) Malcolm Butler: 5 years, $61.25 million ($30 million guaranteed)
The Titans needed defensive back help. Last season they finished 24th in pass defense DVOA at 19.0%. They were 28th against WR2s with a DVOA of 29.3%. Previous Patriot Logan Ryan was fine last year, but he wasn’t what you want from a CB1. Adoree Jackson is really fast and a baby, but he stood no chance in the slot; he doesn’t have the size to press and the outside was also mean to him. Jackson has the athleticism to be a professional cornerback, and it takes time for defensive backs to get it. Still, last year was a terrible time for Jackson.
There are two problems with what the Titans did in signing Butler. The first is Butler was paid $61.25 million, $30 million of it guaranteed, over the course of five years. By yearly average salary, Butler is the tenth highest-paid cornerback in football. This contract is going to be an atrocity. The second problem is that Butler hasn’t been a great player. He’s been a pretty average player since the 2015 season, the one after the famous pick to win the Super Bowl. He’s had a success rate of just 58% and 53% since then. His ability to play the ball has been his guardian angel and propped up his coverage struggles; Butler deflected 15 passes last season and 16 the year before. Like all New England defensive backs, Butler can recover after getting beat, play the ball, and save the play like a radio playing Queen.
The Titans are betting on their trinity of pass rushers in making this deal. Brian Orakpo, Jurrell Casey, and Derrick Morgan all can terrorize the quarterback. By playing behind these three, Butler will no longer at to play five M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I coverage. In a secondary that includes him, Ryan, Kevin Byard, and Johnathan Cyprien, the Titans could make the switch from zone blitzing to eight man box three deep coverage sets.
Like the Solder signing, the Titans overpaid because of need. But unlike the Solder signing, there were other players available. Better defenders like Richard Sherman, Kyle Fuller, and Trumaine Johnson were there; it was also reported the Titans blew every other interested team’s offer away in their deal with Butler. Tennessee would have been better off paying reasonable deals to lesser known marginal players instead of turning a good enough starting cornerback into the tenth highest-paid one in football.