On Monday, we discussed some of the mistakes NFL teams tend to make during free agency. Today, here are the moves that teams have gotten right.
Kevin Zeitler: Five Years, $60 Million ($31.5 Million Guaranteed)
Marshal Yanda is the best guard in football, but Kevin Zeitler isn’t far behind. And, he is his likeliest successor. In fact, Yanda is a nice model for what this deal might give Cleveland: an all-over-the-line mauler who can fill any hole in a pinch and utterly dominate at guard if left there. Yanda is 32 now and still playing at an All-Pro level. This contract takes Zeitler through his age-31 season.
His physical attributes suggest he could play tackle, but even if Zeitler is just a guard, he’s the second-best in football. If you can get the second-best player at any non-special teams position for seven percent of a growing cap in the first year, it’s a slam dunk. And it shows how smart this new Cleveland brain trust is.
Winning teams tend to invest in the lines. And between Zeitler, the new contract they handed to J.C. Tretter along with incumbents Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio the Browns should have the best non-Dallas offensive line in football. They also have a spare first-round pick in Cameron Erving who might not even start. Whoever is playing quarterback for the Browns next season is going to have plenty of time to throw.
Tony Jefferson: Four Years, $34 Million ($19 Million Guaranteed)
Safety is consistently one of the most undervalued positions in football. And, it’s consistently one that smart teams have invested in. The Patriots spent big to keep Devin McCourty. The Packers paid handsomely to keep Morgan Burnett and spent a first-round pick on HaHa Clinton-Dix. And the Seahawks are built largely around their safety duo of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Good teams tend to have great safeties, partially because they aren’t paid enough.
Baltimore has embodied that ethos for years. Ed Reed roamed around center field for over a decade. Last year they plucked Eric Weddle off the street for pennies on the dollar. And now, they’re getting one of the only safeties in football who can truly do anything… and he’s only 25.
Now the Ravens have the best non-Seattle safety duo in football making as much per year as Calais Campbell is by himself. Weddle can play the traditional deep security blanket role while Jefferson roams freely near the line of scrimmage (a not dissimilar arrangement to the one he had with Tyrann Mathieu in Arizona). They no longer have to invest as much in corners, can get incredibly creative in their play-calling and should be able to neutralize non-wide receiver passing options about as well as anyone.
For a team that generally has to spend conservatively in free agency, to be able to create this kind of duo on the open market shows just how poorly other teams measure the value of top safeties.
Kelvin Beachum: Three Years, $24 Million ($12 Million Guaranteed)
This deal would have seemed sensible before free agency. But after the barrage of ridiculous tackle contracts we’ve seen in free agency so far, getting Beachum for $8 million per year feels like a robbery. Matt Kalil got five years and $11 million per season. I might pay Matt Kalil $11 million to not play for my team.
Yes, there are some injury concerns with Beachum. But he was a perfectly serviceable left tackle last season and has been very good in the past. That kind of left tackle almost never hits free agency, and the Jets grabbed him for far less than the market suggests he’s worth. Most teams have to spend a first-round pick to get a left tackle. The Jets got one on a reasonable free agent contract, a clear win for a team lacking talent in general.
Martellus Bennett: Three Years, $21 Million ($7.2 Million Guaranteed)
The days of Bennett catching 90 passes are long gone, but frankly, tight end production is down league-wide. So unless you have a healthy Rob Gronkowski for 16 games, that’s an unreasonable expectation to put on anyone. If Bennett can remain a 50-60 reception tight end who can stretch the field a bit and block fairly well, that’s such a colossal upgrade over what Green Bay has had over the past few years—meaning this contract is well worth the price.
And if Bennett can do more? This contract is a steal. With Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, that’s a distinct possibility. As crazy as this is to say about any tight end, Bennett wasn’t ideally paired with Tom Brady last season. New England had so many slot-based targets that used the middle of the field that at times, Bennett felt like an afterthought. In general, Brady doesn’t stretch the field vertically that much either.
But Rodgers does, and he’ll likely look to Bennett as a deep option a bit more often. He’ll have a less crowded middle of the field to work with. And on a very basic level, if Ted Thompson was willing to spend on him as a free agent, it must mean that Green Bay has big plans for him within their scheme.
Brandon Marshall: Two Years, $11 Million ($5 Million Guaranteed)
Wanna play the crazy numbers game? Here’s Brandon Marshall’s average numbers in his first season with a new team (excluding Denver since he was a rookie there): 104 catches, 1,341 receiving yards and 9.3 touchdowns. That’s basically what Antonio Brown did last year.
Now the Giants get him on a virtually risk-free contract to line up opposite Odell Beckham. The pair is ideally suited to each other, with Marshall serving as the bigger-bodied red zone threat compared to Beckham’s smaller, quicker frame. And for what it’s worth, Marshall is a very good run-blocker. That’s a need for a Giants team that can’t run the ball at all.
It doesn’t fix the offensive line, which was the real underlying issue behind New York’s offensive struggles last year. But it’s a huge addition at virtually no cost. If the Giants can use the draft to help the line and maintain their defensive success from last season, they should be a contender in the NFC.