The new league year has brought a flurry of activity, with free agency and trades significantly altering rosters across the NFL. Thus, on Wednesday night, I took a look at all of the developments — so far — through the lens of contextual production data and forward-looking projections, along with reported contract values. In order to rate each move, I considered the involved player’s past on-field resume and his new team’s current roster and coaching philosophy, then compared these parameters and contract values to other players at the same position.
Taking all of that into account, here are three deals with the highest potential return on investment and three that appear quite suspect:
NOTE: Positional contract rankings below are pulled from Over The Cap.
THREE GOOD MOVES
1) Indianapolis Colts’ signing of QB Philip Rivers
Acquisition details: Indianapolis signed Rivers to a one-year deal worth $25 million guaranteed.
Re-upping Anthony Castonzo at left tackle and signing Rivers to a one-year deal at just the 14th-highest APY (average per year) salary among quarterbacks creates a very high-upside situation for the Colts at the game’s most important position. Last season, Pro Football Focus ranked the Chargers’ offensive line at No. 29, which is part of why Rivers threw 20 interceptions against just 23 touchdown passes (his fewest since 2007). PFF graded the Colts as the third-best O-line in football last season. This is very impactful, given the style of offense the Rivers-led Colts are likely to run in 2020. One area where Next Gen Stats add some valuable context here: deep passes — i.e., throws of 20-plus air yards. Rivers threw for just five touchdowns compared to nine interceptions (most in the NFL) on such passes last season. That’s a big uptick in picks for Rivers from 2018, when he threw for seven touchdowns against just four interceptions on deep attempts. With the Colts‘ O-line and rushing efficiencies, Rivers’ completion probabilities at any depth project to increase, especially if Indianapolis adds depth at receiver. Between Rivers’ reasonable contract, cap space and draft equity (Indy has two picks early in the second round), the Colts have the flexibility to create exceptional long-term value through strategies like drafting a quarterback for the future or upgrading the receiving corps — without sacrificing this season’s win total.
It should also be noted that Indy’s opportunity to win the AFC South has increased so far this offseason according to my numbers, which don’t look favorably at recent moves made by Houston and Jacksonville (more on that below).
2) Baltimore Ravens’ trade for DL Calais Campbell
Campbell has played in all 16 games during each of the past five seasons, including the last three with Jacksonville. A former first-team All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler, Campbell notched 6.5 sacks, 25 QB hits and 10 tackles for loss last season. Next Gen Stats show that he’s one of just three defensive linemen with 100 quarterback pressures to make a tackle on at least eight percent of snaps over the last three seasons (along with Joey Bosa and DeMarcus Lawrence). His ability to defend both the pass and the run is beneficial in ways that the regular stats don’t fully capture. Tracking his value in terms of stopping rushing attempts over the past three seasons, Campbell ranked third-best among defensive linemen in helping to create three-and-outs for his team.
The additions of Campbell and fellow free-agent signee Michael Brockers significantly improve Baltimore’s defensive front in all aspects. First, this gives the Ravens‘ pressure and sack potential a boost. For example, franchise-tagged edge rusher Matt Judon‘s sack projection instantly jumps from 9.5 to 11-plus. Campbell and Brockers also help drive increased win probabilities for games where the Ravens are not playing with a lead, thanks to increased run-stopping potential.
3) Cleveland Browns’ signing of OT Jack Conklin
Acquisition details: Cleveland signed Conklin to a three-year, $42 million deal with $30 million fully guaranteed.
Conklin’s fit in the Browns‘ system — in terms of executing outside-zone run blocking and Cleveland’s pass-protection schemes — has the potential to produce exceptional upside. Given Kevin Stefanski’s body of play-calling work in Minnesota, it stands to reason that zone rushing will be an important contributor to the Browns‘ offense earning first downs and touchdowns. Conklin should add great value in the ground game; Pro Football Focus graded him as the fifth-best run-blocking tackle in football during the 2019 regular season. Efficient rushing will also help create the types of passing opportunities where Conklin is best suited in pass protection. Conklin’s ability to stalemate pass rushers on first down (a proxy for when passes and rushes are more disguised) is a source of strength for him, as he allowed the fewest disruptions to his QB (when a defender comes within a 5-foot halo) on this down over the past three seasons.
With Baker Mayfield‘s passing potential, the scheme fit fills a major need and deficiency on Cleveland’s roster. The top of the right tackle market is Lane Johnson‘s APY of $18 million. Conklin’s $14 million APY ranks third among RTs, but that’s $4 million less annually than Johnson’s figure. Furthermore, since it’s a three-year deal and the Michigan State product is just 25 years old, this creates the opportunity for Conklin to negotiate again prior to being 30 years old. I read this as a smart incentive for Conklin to perform at his best.
1) Houston Texans’ trade of WR DeAndre Hopkins
Acquisition details: Houston traded Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round pick to Arizona in exchange for RB David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-rounder.
This deal certainly isn’t a head-scratcher for Arizona. The Cardinals are getting a proven, elite wide receiver for a very low-cost trade. (David Johnson‘s value to Arizona dive-bombed last season after Kenyan Drake arrived in a midseason trade and proved to be a revelation.) The Cards scored on just 45.3 percent of red-zone drives last season, ranking 29th in the NFL. Meanwhile, over the past two seasons, Hopkins has 12 red-zone touchdown receptions, which is tied for the third-most in the league.
Houston’s side of the deal, though, has everyone questioning Bill O’Brien’s sanity. Last season, Hopkins was my model’s second-most-valuable wide receiver (behind only Michael Thomas), as measured by on- and off-ball ability to help his team earn first downs and touchdowns. Despite this draft class being deep at receiver — and despite the Texans‘ free-agent addition of Randall Cobb to complement the oft-injured Will Fuller — there’s almost no scenario where Houston can replicate the passing-game value of Hopkins, especially given the lack of trade compensation in this deal. In other words, the Texans added a lot of uncertainty to their offense without the equity that could create potential value.
2) Jacksonville Jaguars’ signing of LB Joe Schobert
Acquisition details: Jacksonville signed Schobert to a five-year, $53.75 million deal that includes $22.5 million guaranteed.
Yes, the Jaguars entered this week with a significant need at this position. Jacksonville’s linebacker production, in terms of win share, ranked dead last in my model last season. But this deal is head-scratching due to the price tag, especially considering all of the other needs the team still has to fill. Not to mention, Schobert doesn’t exactly excel in coverage, which is more important for NFL linebackers than ever before. Schobert’s body of work shows that his 2018 proficiency in coverage was an aberration. Overall last season, PFF ranked Schobert 50th of 84 linebackers (min. 300 snaps).
Now, to be fair, my model projects that the Jags’ system will fit Schobert better. However, giving him an APY of nearly $11 million — despite the fact that Jacksonville has serious questions at other defensive positions like corner and pass rusher — creates the potential for a low return on investment.
3) Miami Dolphins’ signing of OG Ereck Flowers
Acquisition details: Miami signed Flowers to a three-year, $30 million deal with $19.95 million fully guaranteed.
The Dolphins‘ O-line, as a unit, ranked last in my 2019 win share model. Miami was bound to address that problem this offseason. But is Flowers really the right kind of answer?
Of the 34 qualified left guards in my sample, Flowers didn’t rank higher than 18th on rushing or passing downs in any single game last season. And Flowers’ play with the Redskins in 2019 was actually a big improvement over his efforts in previous seasons as a Giants offensive tackle. Still, PFF graded him 28th out of 67 guards who played at least 500 snaps last season. Is that kind of middling production really worth an APY of $10 million?
Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.