If championship teams are built through the draft, then free agency is retail therapy for the fanbases of also-rans. The offseason is hope trafficking season, after all, and if you need to rekindle a fan’s flickering will to live, cap space is quite the accelerant.
That is if it doesn’t blow up in your face.
One of the ways we can estimate the financial soundness of contracts is by comparing their average annual value (AAV) to some standardized measure of performance. We like to do that using our proprietary Total Points metric, which factors charting data into an EPA-based division of credit in order to measure the individual contribution of all 22 players.
More specifically, we’ll lean on Total Points Per 1,000 Snaps because 1) 1,000 snaps approximates a full season of play, and 2) it controls for differences in playing time. For brevity’s sake, ‘Total Points’ will refer to that rate-based version.
Players who did not meet a snaps minimum, and therefore aren’t able to be meaningfully evaluated this way, are being removed from the pool of signings. We’ll also toss out players like Mitchell Trubsisky who created non-positive value since they make the scale weird, and it’s clear enough that allocating any resources to non-contributors is questionable.
Obviously, a lot of considerations need to be made when assessing the tenability of a contract. Guaranteed money, player age and outlook, market scarcity, etc. all play a role; contrasting AAV to recent performance is just a quick and easy way to compare players across positions.
CB Levi Wallace (1 year/$1.75M), Buffalo Bills
Wallace has been a defensive staple for Buffalo the past few years, starting all 28 regular season games he’s played in since 2019. Over that period, he’s ranked 11th among corners (min. 750 snaps) in Coverage Total Points/Snap. Thus far, 29 cornerbacks have been signed and teams have gotten about 8 Total Points Per $1M. The Bills shrewdly retained their CB2 at a bargain of 25.4 Total Points Per $1M for the 22nd-best value of free agency so far.
LB Tyus Bowser (4 years/$22M), Baltimore Ravens
Bowser is an interesting player. He’s an on-ball linebacker whose pass rush rate has gone down over the years (roughly 80% as a rookie to a little under 60% last year) and he’s shown the ability to affect the game as both a rusher (12 Total Points in 2020) and a dropper (21). This contributed to his ranking as the most impactful pass defender at the position on a per-snap basis and helps explain why this has been the most valuable long-term (3+ years) deal of free given to a player coming off their first contract so far.
G Oday Aboushi (1 year/$1.6M), Los Angeles Chargers
Los Angeles had arguably the worst offensive line in the league last season, ranking 32nd in Total Points as a unit. Center Corey Linsley was the splash signing for the Chargers’ offensive interior, but Aboushi had something of a breakout year in 2020, ranking sixth in Total Points/Snap and second in Pass Blocking Total Points/Snap among guards.
He isn’t as proven as guys like Joe Thuney and Richie Incognito, but this is a low-risk, high-reward signing no matter how you cut it. As it stands, it’s ‘only’ the 26th-best value of free agency so far at 23 Total Points Per $1M, but the Chargers get bonus points for filling a big need with a rising player for cheap.
Honorable mentions: CB Nevin Lawson (1 year/$1.13M, 5th among 205 qualifying signings), Las Vegas Raiders, LB Malcolm Smith (1 year/$1.21M, 7/205), Cleveland Browns, WR Isaiah McKenzie (1 year/$1.15M, 13/205), Buffalo Bills
DE J.J. Watt (2 years/$28M) & WR A.J. Green (1 year/$6M), Arizona Cardinals
Arizona either felt nostalgic or were being advised by that guy in your fantasy league who’s always five years behind. These members of the legendary 2011 draft class still have some good ball left in them, but both have shown signs of slowing down.
After ranking 10th in 2018 and 8th in 2019, Watt dropped to 58th in Total Points per snap last year. Perhaps an escape from Easterbytown will do him some good, but Watt is 32 with an injury history and has eclipsed five sacks just once in the past five seasons. His 2020 pressure rate of 9% last season doesn’t portend positive regression, either.
2.7 Total Points Per $1M ranks 183rd out of 205 free agent deals and is the second-worst deal given out to an edge defender so far.
Green regressed in his age 32 season, ranking 82nd in Receiving Total Points/Snap in 2020 after placing 19th, 26th, and 4th the previous three years. He also seems to be an odd fit in Arizona. Since 2019, he’s ranked eleventh in average depth of target (ADOT) among receivers with 100+ targets over that span (13.8).
During that same timeframe, Kyler Murray has ranked 31st of 40 quarterbacks (min. 300 attempts) in the equivalent metric (7.5). Kliff Kingsbury appears to be the constraint here, though. Murray wasn’t afraid to cut it loose at Oklahoma; his ADOT of 10.8 ranked 12th of 111 quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts in 2018. Texas Tech quarterback Alan Bowman ranked 108th in that same season.
Green’s fit, age, and regression make his ROI of 1.5 Total Points Per $1M unpalatable.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (1 year/$8M), Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh wide receiver John Smith—known better by his TikTok username ‘JuJu’—ranked just 88th in Receiving Total Points/Snap in the final year of his rookie contract, and it turns out there isn’t much of a market for high-volume, low-efficiency slots.
He aligned inside 87% of the time in 2020 and his ADOT (5.7) was comfortably the lowest among the 39 receivers and tight ends who were targeted 100+ times. There is a growing perception that his second-year breakout was a byproduct of Antonio Brown, and Smith-Schuster’s career Yards per Route Run splits with (2.3) and without (1.3) his former teammate corroborate that.
The 24-year-old is certainly hoping for a renaissance season, but 1.2 Total Points Per $1M seems rich for a prove-it deal.
Honorable mentions: WR Kenny Golladay (4 years/$72M, 194/205), New York Giants; TE Jonnu Smith (4 years/$50M, 198/205), New England Patriots; Gerald Everett (1 year/$6M, 200/205), Seattle Seahawks