With free agency slowing, Yardbarker's Chris Mueller, Michael Nania and Sam Robinson assess which team has "won" the offseason.
Best move: Signed free-agent CB Byron Jones | Under-the-radar move: Signed free-agent center Ted Karras
NANIA: Miami (5-11) overachieved in its first season under head coach Brian Flores, but it still went into the offseason with more holes than just about any other team. In turn, the Dolphins have been uber-aggressive, handing out a league-leading four contracts of $30-plus million. Normally, this level of wild spending would be worthy of criticism, but the Dolphins spent wisely on players who were deserving of hefty deals and filled crucial needs in the passing game.
Jones, the former Cowboy, signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal -- the most lucrative in NFL history for a cornerback. He's worth it. In 2019, Jones allowed the fourth-fewest yards per cover snap among cornerbacks (0.62). That was no fluke. He ranked eighth in 2018 (0.79).
Karras, a former Patriot, is quietly a nice signing for Miami. The Dolphins' offensive line was the league's worst in most categories, and center was one of the biggest issues. In 2019, Karras became a full-time starter for the first time, in his fourth NFL season. He struggled at the start of the season but finished strongly, allowing no pressures over his final seven games. From Week 12 on (including the playoffs), Karras earned Pro Football Focus' seventh-best overall grade among centers. On a one-year, $4 million deal, Karras could be an excellent value.
The Dolphins also doled out a combined $70.75 million in guarantees to edge defender Kyle Van Noy (Patriots), defensive end Shaq Lawson (Bills) and guard Ereck Flowers (Redskins).
Van Noy, who played under Flores in New England, moved from linebacker to the edge in 2019, and flourished, ranking 13th at the position in run stops (20) and 20th in pressures (57). Lawson had a career year in 2019, ranking 16th of 98 qualified edge defenders in pass-rush productivity as he posted 38 pressures over 262 pass-rush snaps. Flowers benefited from a move to guard in Washington, after a poor start to his career at tackle with the Giants and Jaguars. In his first season playing guard, Flowers ranked 28th of 64 qualifiers at his position, with a 64.2 overall grade from PFF.
Best move: Signed RT Jack Conklin | Under-the-radar move: Traded for FB Andy Janovich
MUELLER: "Champions of the offseason." That might be a fitting title again for the Browns, who used their ample cap space to reshape their roster for first-time head coach Kevin Stefanski, the former Minnesota offensive coordinator. Cleveland’s best moves were on offense.
Stefanski favors a zone-blocking scheme, part of the reason the Browns signed Conklin, the former Titan. He didn’t come cheap; his three-year, $42 million deal includes $30 million guaranteed, but the numbers suggest he’s worth the money. Conklin is an accomplished zone blocker, and had Pro Football Focus’ fifth-highest run blocking grade (80.5) among tackles with at least 300 run-blocking snaps in 2019.
Conklin is not as proficient in pass protection, ranking 21st in PFF's pass- blocking grade among tackles who played at least 900 total snaps last season. But his 72.3 grade is still better than average and a massive improvement over Chris Hubbard, who replaced the traded Kevin Zeitler and started 12 games at right tackle for the Browns in 2019.
Conklin will be part of a clear philosophical shift in Cleveland. The Browns want a greater commitment to the run. Despite having the third-highest yards per carry in the league last season (4.8), Cleveland ran the ball just 383 times, 22nd in the league. One reason for that disparity is because the Browns frequently played from behind.
In addition to the Conklin signing, general manager Andrew Berry made a solid, less-publicized move when he traded a seventh-round pick in 2021 to the Broncos for fullback Andy Janovich. Minnesota’s C.J. Ham was one of just three fullbacks in the league to play at least 200 snaps as a blocker last year, a sign that Stefanski’s offense requires dependability at a dying position. Janovich played sparingly for Denver in 2019, but he had the third-highest PFF run-blocking grade for any fullback.
Moves made to aid the running game might not be sexy in a pass-first league, but they should help the Browns cut down on turnovers and devastate opponents with play-action passes. Baker Mayfield passed for 1,128 yards off 134 play-action attempts last season. (Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, Stefanski's pupil, threw for 107 more play-action yards on four fewer attempts.) Mayfield is still the most important person on the team, and the Conklin signing and Janovich trade show that Berry and Stefanski are eager to help him succeed.
Best move: Traded 2021 seventh-round pick for DL Jurrell Casey | Under-the-radar move: Kept DL Shelby Harris
ROBINSON: Denver improved its roster in free agency and used a smart tactic to acquire two quality, affordable starters for low-level draft compensation. With seven picks in this draft’s first four rounds, the Broncos have a chance to be significantly better in 2020.
Not exactly pioneers in the art of trading Day 3 draft capital for proven talent, the Broncos nevertheless made one of the best value buys in this practice’s short history. Capitalizing on a Titans team needing to shed salary, the Broncos acquired the final three seasons of Casey’s $15M-per-year contract for the NFL equivalent of “player to be named later.” The five-time Pro Bowler is still 30 and becomes the Broncos’ best interior defensive lineman since at least Trevor Pryce, a Denver standout in the early 2000s.
In acquiring a Casey contract signed in 2017, the Broncos have him locked down through 2022 at reasonable salaries ($11.3M in 2020 and non-guaranteed $11.7M and $13.3M numbers in ‘21 and ’22) based on the current market. Casey has missed just five games in a nine-year career and, among pure defensive tackles, ranks in the top 10 in sacks and quarterback hits since 2015. This type of player should not be available for a seventh-round pick. Casey will play the Akiem Hicks defensive end/interior pass-rusher role in head coach Vic Fangio’s defense and team with Harris, one of this year’s best value signings.
One of the few Broncos success stories since Super Bowl 50, Harris went from being out of football in 2016 to leading the NFL in passes batted down last season. Hoping to parlay his three Broncos seasons into a decent free-agency payday, Harris encountered a cold market and re-signed with the Broncos on a one-year, $3.25 million deal. The 28-year-old lineman has consistently graded as a high-end run-stopper, per Pro Football Focus, and registered a career-high six sacks last season.
The Broncos entered free agency with their entire starting defensive line unsigned. Thanks to shrewdly using the trade market for Casey and waiting out Harris’ market, they will enter 2020 with their first-string D-line on team-friendly contracts.
The Broncos also signed the best guard available at an upper-middle-class price (Graham Glasgow at $11M per year) and acquired a proven boundary cornerback for a fourth-round pick. A.J. Bouye’s resume (one Pro Bowl) trails Chris Harris’, but the ex-Jaguars and Texans standout is two years younger and -- in PFF’s view - ranked as a top-five boundary corner from 2016-18. An upper-echelon offensive lineman for the past three years – despite playing both guard positions and center – Glasgow provides flexibility and dependability Denver’s previous well-paid guard (Ron Leary) did not. The former third-round Lions draftee has missed two games in his career. With the O-line free-agent markets of recent years turning into sellers’ bonanzas, the Broncos did well to land Glasgow at this rate.
Denver did not navigate free agency perfectly, making redundant backfield piece Melvin Gordon the NFL’s sixth-highest-paid running back. But the Broncos otherwise did well and, despite having QB Drew Lock’s rookie contract to build around, did not pay top-market prices for any acquisition.