In nine seasons with the Broncos, Chris Harris, signed by the Chargers in free agency, excelled in slot coverage. Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Three superb value signings in NFL free agency

The first wave of NFL free agency is over. What team got the best player value?  Yardbarker's  Sam Robinson, Michael Nania and Chris Mueller weigh in. 

Cornerback Chris Harris, Chargers

ROBINSON: The Chargers' addition of three 30-something free agents –- 11th-year right tackle Bryan Bulaga, 11th-year defensive tackle Linval Joseph and 10th-year cornerback Harris -– and Los Angeles' decision to go with either Tyrod Taylor or a first-round pick at quarterback looks odd. But there is no denying the Bolts made a value buy in Harris. 

The NFL features maybe three active position players whose resumes are strong enough to have claims at being the greatest ever at their jobs: Tom Brady, Aaron Donald and Harris. Although Harris’ role of slot cornerback has not existed for generations like Brady’s and Donald’s, he has thrived in it for so long -– in the most difficult era to play cornerback -– it is reasonable to call him the top slot defender in NFL history. And the Chargers signed Harris to a mere two-year, $17 million deal, with $9.5M guaranteed.

The Bolts capitalized on multiple factors to land an all-decade-caliber corner at that price, which is tied for the 24th-highest salary at the position. A four-time Pro Bowler, Harris will turn 31 in June. He is also coming off a down 2019 campaign. Injuries and an understaffed cornerback depth chart prompted the Broncos to play Harris out of position last season, keeping him as an outside corner rather than letting him patrol the slot as he did for Denver’s acclaimed "No Fly Zone" secondaries. Pro Football Focus, which rated Harris as the NFL's second-best cornerback from 2006-19, ranked him outside the position’s top 30 last year as a result. But the Bolts appear ready to allow the three-time All-Pro to operate at his best position.

The former undrafted free agent has displayed the seldom-seen ability to be a high-end boundary defender in base sets and an elite slot stopper in nickel looks. This made Harris the centerpiece of multiple Broncos Super Bowl secondaries. The Chargers informed Harris he will primarily play the slot role, while incumbent Desmond King -– who has become one of the game’s top slot defenders –- will shift to his college position of safety. This configuration would allow the Bolts to deploy Harris, King, cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Derwin James as starters in an extraordinarily rare position group featuring four All-Pros. This quartet will be a strong candidate to enter next season as the NFL’s top secondary.

Harris aimed for a better contract in free agency, opting to hit the market after signing a Broncos-friendly extension -– five years, $42.5M -– late in 2014. With a better deal eluding him, he could give the Chargers immense value. He's signed at a much lower rate than less talented free agents James Bradberry ($14.5M-per-year Giants deal) and Trae Waynes ($14M-per-year Bengals deal). Cornerbacks age faster than players at several other positions, but modern examples of productive post-30 play exist.

Champ Bailey, Charles Woodson, Aeneas Williams, Ronde Barber, Antoine Winfield, Al Harris, Troy Vincent and Brent Grimes represent the group of 21st-century corners voted to at least two Pro Bowls after their 31st birthdays. Nine more made one Pro Bowl past 30 since 2000. Harris, who went 36 games without allowing a touchdown from 2013-15, is better than several members of this 17-cornerback contingent. He has a good chance of not only rewarding the Chargers on this contract but adding multiple quality seasons to one of this era’s most underrated resumes.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Cornerback Brian Poole, Jets

NANIA:  Poole is coming off a superb season of slot coverage for the Jets, allowing only 237 yards over 417 snaps. That's an average of 0.57 per slot coverage snap, which led all qualified cornerbacks. The yardage came on 51 targets, a mere 4.6 yards per target, also tops among cornerbacks in slot coverage. He was clearly one of the top 3-5 cornerbacks set to hit the open market.

Bringing back Poole was a top priority for the Jets going into the offseason, but it seemed they would have to pay a relatively steep price. In 2019, standout slot corner Bryce Callahan, formerly of the Bears, signed a three-year, $21 million with the Broncos ($10 million guaranteed). That seemed like a good starting point for Poole's deal. The general expectation was that Poole would attract a three-year deal in the range of $8 million-$9 million per year.

One problem the Jets had with investing huge money in Poole was the fact that his elite performance in 2019 was an outlier. Over his previous two seasons, he allowed the second-most yards out of the slot each season, giving up 569 in 2017 and 552 in 2018. It seemed unlikely that he would duplicate his top-notch performance, making a hefty commitment risky. Not to mention, cornerback (especially nickel cornerback) is arguably the most volatile position in the league. Consistency is tough to find at that spot.

Thus, the Jets certainly had an interest in retaining Poole because of his tremendous fit in Gregg Williams' defense, but only at the right price. General manager Joe Douglas, running his first full offseason at the helm, knocked the negotiations out of the park. He brought Poole back on a one-year, $5 million deal, the second consecutive one-year pact that Poole has signed with New York. The Jets get back the best slot cornerback of 2019 at an affordable cost, and they aren't tied to him if he fails to replicate his success. 

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Linebacker Cory Littleton, Raiders

MUELLER: The Raiders weren't a factor in the Tom Brady sweepstakes, instead ending up with Marcus Mariota, who will presumably push Derek Carr and possibly replace him. But Las Vegas did something far more important in free agency: beefed up its linebacking corps.

The Raiders, whose linebackers were awful in 2019, have committed significant resources to the position this offseason. Nick Kwiatkoski, who played for the Bears last season, was signed to a three-year, $21 million deal. His role will be to stop the run and occasionally get after the quarterback. That’s a solid signing, but the team’s other, more expensive new linebacker, may provide much more bang for the buck.

Littleton addresses a gaping hole for the Raiders, who were terrible in pass coverage last season, with the team earning a 48.0 Pro Football Focus coverage grade (29th in NFL). Their linebackers especially were horrible in coverage, with a 38.4 PFF coverage grade and a 122 passer rating against.

Littleton, who signed a three-year, $35.25 million deal, with $22 million guaranteed, addresses those shortcomings. Among linebackers with at least 1,000 snaps in 2019, he had the third-highest overall PFF grade (78.9). Only Carolina’s Luke Kuechly and Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David had higher marks. Littleton was excellent in pass coverage as well, with an 82.3 overall grade, right on the heels of Kuechly and David.

By more traditional metrics, Littleton was also dynamic  last season (four forced fumbles, two interceptions, nine pass breakups and 3.5 sacks). Littleton passes the eye test too. He’s tall (6-foot-3) and lean (a shade under 230 pounds), and is the prototype cover linebacker for the modern NFL.

It isn’t just Littleton’s build and skills that make him a great value for the Raiders. Vegas stayed in the playoff hunt until late last season, and had its defense been better (24th in scoring, 30th in net yards allowed per pass attempt) the Raiders might have found a way to sneak in. He certainly will help covering the division's tight ends -- especially Kansas City's Travis Kelce.

Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.

Michael Nania writes about the NFL, focusing mainly on statistical analysis. His work can also be found at Gang Green Nation and Elite Sports New York. On Twitter, Michael can be found @Michael_Nania.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.

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