Breakdowns

How Much Do Splashy Free Agent Signings Make an Impact?

How Much Do Splashy Free Agent Signings Make an Impact?

The NFL off-season is the point at which every team tries to improve their team for the coming season. There are multiple ways to approach Free Agency and the NFL Draft, and the purpose of this article is to discover how effective the expensive Free Agents are with their new team. Roster evaluation, Free Agency and the Draft is a lengthy process as described by Former Minnesota Vikings GM, Rick Spielman:

“During the season, our Pro Personnel guys evaluate our current roster, Unrestricted Free Agents of our opposition teams, and then those UFAs on all other teams too. This is an important part of the evaluation process as they compile initial reports, which are then used in initial meetings following the end of the NFL season. We highlight guys who fit inside our budget and pass them onto the coaches to watch and work out which guys fit best.”

Rick Spielman’s most expensive Free Agent signing while in charge of the Vikings was Kirk Cousins ($84m, 3 years) and when asked about the process behind bringing Cousins to the Vikings, he said:

“We saw Teddy Bridgewater’s injury in 2016 and brought in Sam Bradford which worked out well at first. Then Sam gets injured, and it always comes down to a financial v medical decision as to whether we re-sign players. Later that season we had Case Keenum take us to the NFC Championship game (2017). Then during the UFA evaluation phase, we identified Kirk Cousins as a player who could be the next franchise QB and we had a new Offensive Coordinator (John DeFilippo) come in for the next season and Kirk would fit the new scheme well, so we brought him in.”

So, how productive exactly are some of the most expensive Free Agents in the NFL in recent years? (All salaries are shown in Average Per Year).

2021

Trent Williams, 49ers: 23.0m – 6 years

After missing the 2019 season due to injury, the 49ers picked up Williams and he has become an essential part of their offense. He was the best graded run and pass blocking O-lineman on the 49ers in 2020 and 2021.

Kenny Golladay, Giants: 18.0m – 4 years

Golladay has had a torrid last 2 seasons, finishing 2020 with 20 receptions and 338 yards for the Lions before his move to the Giants saw him finish 2021 with 37 receptions and 521 yards with 0 Touchdowns. Perhaps a change of coaches will see him hit 1000 receiving yards again in 2022…

Bud Dupree, Titans: 16.5m – 5 years

Dupree managed only 11 games of the 2021 season, picking up 2 more injuries. When he was on the field, he averaged a sack every 2 games (3.0 in 6 games), but injury concerns still linger.

Joe Thuney, Chiefs: 16.0m – 5 years

Thuney is a superb pass blocker and is the highest graded pass blocker on the Chiefs in 2021, only giving up a pressure on 2.1% of snaps.

Trey Hendrickson, Bengals: 15.0m – 4 years

The Bengals were criticized by many for “overpaying” Trey Hendrickson, but he finished 5th in the NFL for total sacks with 14.0 in 2021 and was an integral part to their Super Bowl run.

2020

Tom Brady, Buccaneers: 25m – 2 years

Everyone knows how good Tom Brady is, and the fact the Bucs managed to tie him down to a $25m APY contract was amazing. Brady won a Super Bowl in his first season and was the catalyst to get there and guided the Bucs to a 13-4 finish in 2021 and an NFC Divisional appearance – losing to the eventual champions.

Byron Jones, Dolphins: 16.5m – 5 years

Jones had an average season for the Dolphins in 2020 and 2021, in 2020 he intercepted 2 passes and gave up 497 yards, in 2021, he allowed a 56.8% completion rate, only allowed 3 TDs, and had 12 pass break ups (T-8th).

Dante Fowler Jr, Falcons: 15m – 3 years

Fowler Jr joined the Falcons off a season with the Rams where he achieved 11.5 sacks, and then managed just 3.0 and 4.5 in 2020 and 2021 respectively. His pressure percentage wasn’t drastically lower than with the Rams, but he couldn’t complete sacks. He is now with the Dallas Cowboys ahead of the 2022 season.

James Bradberry, Giants: 14.5m – 3 years

Bradberry had a decent 2020 and 2021 with the Giants, forcing 3 and 4 INTs respectively, but with the Giants bringing in new staff ahead of 2022, they looked to move Bradberry via trade, but couldn’t do so and he was released before being signed on a 1-year deal with the Eagles.

Robert Quinn, Bears: 14m – 5 years

Quinn had a torrid 2020 season, only managing 2 sacks from 13 games, but in 2021 he turned it around and achieved the 2nd highest sack total in the NFL (18.5) and produced a 13.0% pressure rate, improving the Bears’ pass rush dramatically.

2019

Nick Foles, Jaguars: 22m – 4 years

Foles signed a big contract with the Jaguars ahead of the 2019 season, but failed to impress and after starting 4 games, and playing in 7 games, the Jaguars went with Gardner Minshew as their starting QB, and traded away Foles to the Chicago Bears, where he also didn’t become their starter, and the Bears released Foles. He is currently an Unrestricted Free Agent.

Trey Flowers, Lions: 18m – 5 years

Flowers has had a torrid time with injuries, playing a role in just 7 games each season in 2020 and 2021. It’s tough to say what his production has been like from a relatively small sample size, but he’s managed 10.5 sacks in the 27 games he has started.

CJ Mosley, Jets: 17m – 5 years

Mosley had almost 2 years of not playing due to a groin injury, followed by opting out during the COVID-19 affected season. However, back and healthy in 2021 he amassed 168 tackles (4th in the league) and was a solid player in all aspects for the Jets, becoming a Pro Bowl alternate.

Za’Darius Smith, Packers: 16.5m – 4 years

Smith proved to be an impactful signing for the Packers, in 2019 and 2020 he racked up 13.5 and 12.5 sacks respectively, a crucial part of their pass rush and defense. However, in 2021, he missed almost all the season due to a back injury and subsequent surgery. He was released and the Minnesota Vikings signed him in 2022 Free Agency on a 3 year, $42m deal.

Trent Brown, Raiders: 16.5m – 4 years

Brown managed 11 games of the 2019 season and then only 5 in 2020 battling injuries and COVID-19, but despite this, was named to the 2019 Pro Bowl. He then signed a 2-year contract to head back to the New England Patriots where again he only managed 9 games and didn’t complete a full season.

2018

Kirk Cousins, Vikings: 28m – 3 years

The Vikings signed Cousins coming off 3 consecutive 4,000 passing yard seasons with an Interception percentage of less than 2.5% in all 3 years. He adapted well to the changes of scheme during his time with the Vikings and was rewarded with a new contract by Rick Spielman in 2020, and then another extension by new GM, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. Cousins continues to be the mainstay of the franchise.

Sammy Watkins, Chiefs: 16m – 3 years

Watkins was a key piece in the Super-Bowl-Winning offense of the Kansas City Chiefs, with 519, 673 and 421 yards in each season from 2019 to 2021 with 8 total touchdowns during that time. With the Chiefs requiring cap space, Watkins played out his contract with the Chiefs and was not re-signed, becoming a UFA and signing for the Baltimore Ravens — where he caught 27 passes for 394 yards in 2021.

Nate Solder, Giants: 15.5m – 4 years

Solder has had a lengthy NFL career, and at the age of 34, must surely be thinking towards retirement soon. He has played at an average level on his New York Giants contract, not being the best run/pass blocker by any stretch of the imagination, but not being the worst either. Solder hasn’t announced anything about his future as of yet.

Trumaine Johnson, Jets: 14.5m – 5 years

Johnson signed with the Jets after a nice stint with the Rams but couldn’t stay healthy and played only 10 games in 2018 (but did manage 4 interceptions) and 7 games in 2019. He was released and then didn’t make the practice squad of other NFL teams for 2020 and hasn’t been seen in the league since.

Andrew Norwell, Jaguars: 13.25m – 5 years

By his own standards, 2021 wasn’t his best season, but the years prior, he played to a fairly high standard, having a positive effect in the run and pass game. He was a mainstay of the Jags’ OL and was picked up by the Washington Commanders as an Unrestricted Free Agent in 2022.

2017

Eric Berry, Chiefs: 13m – 6 years

Berry was a high-level safety for the Chiefs since being drafted in 2010, he was rewarded with another contract in 2017, before rupturing his Achilles after 1 game and missing the 2017 season, he then had issues with his heel in pre-season of the 2018 season, causing him to play only 3 games that year, with the Chiefs eventually releasing him, 2 years into a 5-year contract.

Kevin Zeitler, Browns: 12m – 5 years

The Browns had 2 seasons of good OG play (where he played all 32 games) from Zeitler before making a trade with the New York Giants where Zeitler was exchanged for Olivier Vernon. In his 2 seasons with the Giants, he only missed 1 game and was one of the best Offensive Linemen on the team, he was then released after the 2020 season and picked up by the Baltimore Ravens.

Calais Campbell, Jaguars: 15m – 4 years

Campbell started all 48 games in his 3 years as a Jaguar, amassing 31.5 sacks during his time with the franchise before the Jaguars traded him to the Ravens for a 5th round pick in 2020. He has since re-signed with the Ravens and has been a productive addition.

AJ Bouye, Jaguars: 13.5m – 5 years

Bouye had a good first 2 seasons with the Jaguars, with 6 INTs in his first season for the franchise, but that production quickly declined, and he gave up 806 passing yards in 2019 (9.7 yards per target) and so was traded to the Broncos, where he didn’t play a lot due to injuries and suspensions, he later played for the Panthers, but doesn’t have a team currently.

Mike Glennon, Bears: 14.5m – 3 years

Potentially one of the oddest “big-money” signings was Glennon, who signed this deal after starting just 18 games in the NFL and throwing 30 TDs and 15 INTs in his first 3 seasons with the Buccaneers. He lasted 1 season in Chicago, before bouncing around a new team every season as a career backup.


The evidence is clear, while big money signings can prove to be franchise-altering in a positive way, a team’s investment does not always return good results.