NFL teams can’t really win free agency. It’s impossible to win something that exists right now only as news that bounces across a ticker or your computer screen. None of the signings have had any influence on the winning and losing that actually matters. You know, the games.
Free agency can only be won or lost in hindsight. And most often the winners aren’t those who dump money on the marquee names. No, instead the general managers who can kick back on their football throne are those who signed players to contracts they will quickly outperform.
Those players then became talented and cheap, a valuable combination in the salary-cap era.
The major free agency shuffling has largely fizzled now. So which signings will return the most value? Here are three leading names, starting with a large man who has a meat nickname.
Team: Washington Redskins
Terms: one year, $4 million
Guaranteed: $2.95 million
Affectionately dubbed “Pot Roast”, there were whispers that defensive tackle Terrance Knighton had become even more plump and round prior to free agency.
A head coach texted me in regards to Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton. “Teams afraid to sign him because he’s out of shape” So, there’s that.
— Dianna Marie Russini (@NBCdianna) March 12, 2015
Let’s assume for a moment Knighton has indeed ballooned to become an even meatier roast, and therefore risks being less effective as a two-down run stuffer. The response from the Washington Redskins at this price should still be a shoulder shrug.
Knighton is currently listed at 331 pounds, though NFL.com could be lying. A one-year deal for minimal guaranteed money erases all risk associated with potential physical problems. In theory it should also motivate Knighton to be in the best condition possible to perform well before hitting the market again a year from now as a still relatively young 30-year-old.
The worst-case scenario isn’t all that daunting here. If Knighton becomes a bloated mess he’s a problem the Redskins can wash their hands of next March by letting him walk.
The best-case scenario? One of the league’s premier interior run defenders keeps playing at that level for another season after recording 22 run stops in 2014, per Pro Football Focus. And he’ll do it while being paid nearly $12 million less in guaranteed money than Dan Williams, who was given $15 million in secured dough by the Oakland Raiders.
Team: New England Patriots
Terms: two years, $11 million
Guaranteed: $5 million
Worlds aligned perfectly when Jabaal Sheard signed with the New England Patriots. He has the versatility that makes him smell like a Bill Belichick defender.
The Patriots run a 4-3 defense in name only, often using their sub packages to create favorable matchups and take away an opponent’s strength. That’s why Sheard is the ideal fit as a defender who’s been effective as both a defensive end and an outside linebacker.
As Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston noted, the Patriots used sub packages on 73.5 percent of their defensive snaps in 2014. That means Belichick leans heavily on movable chess pieces like Sheard, who had 15.5 sacks over his first two NFL seasons after being a second-round pick in 2011.
He’s still young (turning 28 in May), and now a pass-rusher set to provide both depth and versatility is being paid a whopping $8.5 million less in guaranteed money than new Tennessee Titans outside linebacker Brian Orakpo. The same Brian Orakpo who has missed 24 games over the past three seasons.
Team: San Francisco 49ers
Terms: two years, $7.5 million
Guaranteed: $2 million
The San Francisco 49ers have been absolutely dismantled this offseason, partly through circumstances out of their control. They were prepared to lose cornerbacks Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver, but middle linebacker — a former position of strength — has now been gutted after the retirements of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland.
But there’s at least a sprinkling of hope on defense provided by the Darnell Dockett signing. The 49ers capitalized on what could become an ideal situation: A player recovering from an injury saw his price predictably tumble on the open market.
If said player can now return to his 2013 form that saw Dockett record 30 defensive stops and finish fourth among all 3-4 defensive ends in quarterback hits (all per PFF), then the 49ers will be employing a high-achiever at a below market price.
Much like Knighton’s contract, a minimal guarantee for Dockett also means minimal risk, and possibly a significant return on San Francisco’s investment.