5 biggest NFL free agent steals
Shortly after NFL free agency settled and many of the new contracts had been signed, experts from around the sports world handed out their grades and assigned winners and losers. Of course, all of that analysis and grading meant very little at the time. But now that a good portion of the season has passed, we can look back and properly evaluate some of the signings.
While free agent deals and their value to each team are sort of a fluid thing, we’ve gathered enough data going into Week 12 to know which are panning out this season and which aren’t.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the top five free agent signings from the offseason.
5. Damon Harrison (defensive tackle, New York Giants)
Giants general manager Jerry Reese was the biggest offseason spender, dropping $193.75 million on new contracts — most of which came on the defensive side of the football. And while that sort of approach has not fared well for many in the recent past, it’s been a different story for Reese and Big Blue.
You could make an argument for every one of their signings to be listed here and it would be justified. But as part of the cream that has risen to the top, we’ll go with defensive tackle Damon Harrison to kick things off.
Coming over from the New York Jets, “Snacks” has been everything the Giants anticipated and more. His pairing with fellow run-stopping defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins has completely transformed the team’s interior defense, which currently ranks No. 8 in the league.
After finishing with a 24th ranking a season ago, allowing 121.4 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry, the Giants are currently allowing only 92.2 yards per game and only 3.6 yards per carry.
In addition to a tenacious on-field run-stuffer, the price of $46.25 million also landed the Giants a well-respected locker-room leader in Harrison.
4. Lamar Miller (running back, Miami Dolphins)
With Arian Foster gone, Brock Osweiler under-performing, and a below average offensive line, it’s almost a miracle that the Houston Texans are in a battle for the division title.
Part of the reason for their relative success has been the play of running back Lamar Miller, who signed a four-year, $26 million contract in the offseason.
In 10 games, Miller has been the top back for the Texans, gaining 824 yards on 192 carries (4.3 ypc) and three touchdowns. He’s also added 24 receptions for 133 yards and one touchdown. Not only do many of those numbers project to be career highs when all is said and done, Miller is currently fifth in the NFL in rushing.
It hasn’t always been pretty for Miller this season, with his Pro Football Focus grades looking like a roller coaster, but as he continues to acclimate to a new offense, he continues to improve. And if Houston has any hope of getting into the playoffs, it will rest on Miller’s shoulders.
3. Eric Weddle (safety, Baltimore Ravens)
Things did not end well between safety Eric Weddle and the San Diego Chargers. Simply put, the team didn’t believe the 31-year-old warranted a substantial investment despite his many years of quality service to the team.
The Baltimore Ravens, in need of another solid safety, did and signed him to a four-year, $26 million deal.
As it turns out, the Ravens had more foresight than the Chargers because not only has Weddle proven to be an asset with a legitimate chip on his shoulder, but he’s actually been one of the best safeties in the NFL through 11 weeks.
Highest-graded NFL safeties this season:
1. Eric Weddle, 91.9
2. Landon Collins, 89.9
3. Kam Chancellor, 89.7
4. Reshad Jones, 88.5 pic.twitter.com/z5o3aV3RMx
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) November 22, 2016
How much longer Weddle will keep up this elite play remains to be seen, but at least in 2016, it has paid off big for the Ravens. Weddle has anchored Baltimore’s secondary, provided key leadership and is likely headed for an All-Pro nod.
Through 10 games this season, Weddle has collected 51 tackles (30 solo), one forced fumble, two interceptions and seven passes defensed.
2. Janoris Jenkins (cornerback, New York Giants)
Like Damon Harrison before him, cornerback Janoris Jenkins was another one of general manager Jerry Reese’s high-priced free agent additions. But unlike his decision to sign Harrison, Reese was met with heavy criticism after dropping $62.5 million on the “Jackrabbit.” In fact, Jenkins was widely considered one of the worst free agent signings prior to the start of the season.
My how time changes perception.
Once considered a risk-taking, inconsistent cornerback, Jenkins has morphed himself into one of the most dominant, shut-down corners in the league. And the analytics match that statement.
Through 11 weeks, Pro Football Focus has Jenkins graded as the sixth-best cornerback in the NFL, noting that quarterbacks throwing in his direction sport a 64.4 passer rating, while completing only 53.2% of their passes for one touchdown. By comparison, Jenkins has two interceptions and 12 passes defensed.
So far this season, Jenkins has shut down the likes of Dez Bryant, DeSean Jackson, A.J. Green, Tavon Austin and Jordy Nelson. That’s saying something.
1. Zach Brown (linebacker, Buffalo Bills)
When big-name free agents were being checked off the list, precious few were thinking about linebacker Zach Brown. Luckily for the Bills however, Brown was on their radar.
Unlike the other names on this list, Brown didn’t land a massive contract, instead signing his name to a one-year, $1.25 million deal. As it turns out, that was one of the best free agent deals made all offseason. And for Brown, it was just a stepping stone to what’s going to be a much larger payday in 2017.
In 10 games, Brown has recorded 101 tackles, which is good for fifth in the NFL, to go along with three sacks, eight stuffs and two forced fumbles. Yet those impressive numbers still don’t tell the entire story.
Five times this season Brown has recorded 10 or more tackles in a single game, with a season-high 17 coming in a 16-0 victory over the New England Patriots in Week 4. Brown also had a sack in that game.
Currently, Brown has the fourth-highest Pro Football Focus grade among linebackers and is tied for the league lead in PFF’s “stops” metric.
Brown may not be the name many expected to see top this list when the season started, but that’s why they play the game. So give Bills general manager Doug Whaley some credit, because he scored big on this under-the-radar addition.