Often in the NFL, storylines of the season and the offseason can be dictated by the biggest names; Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Julio Jones to name a few. But NFL front office members are constantly focused on improving their roster, thinking about who will be on the move, who we can sign to fill a need, and where we can add depth when the injuries inevitably occur. The best signings of the offseason, the teams that truly “hit” on a player, often go overlooked. This isn’t at all to say Aaron Rodgers’ return or the big named Free Agent signings are not important to team success, but incremental gains are often left in the shadow of the big news. Here are some significant moves this offseason that got overlooked as hits, and the moves that were over covered and missed.
The Underrated Hits
- As a castoff of the 2021 Cardinals offseason moves, the ILB signed with the Packers as the 55th highest paid at the position ($2M). He has been one of the best veteran bargains in the NFL and has been graded as such this season. He is tied for the 6th most tackles in the NFL, and has missed only 4 tackles on just under 1,000 snaps. No other LB in the top 15 of snaps at the position has missed less than 10 tackles. Campbell was named to the Pro Bowl recently and could be in line for All-Pro honors, with the price tag of a backup NFL linebacker (Zeke Turner and Jon Bostic make more in 2021).
- Denico Autry signed a 3-year, $21.5M contract with the Titans after spending the past three years in Indy. He is owed $7.5M in cash this season. Autry has totaled 9.5 sacks and 64 total pressures, besting his previous career high in pressures by 15. Not only that, but he has the highest pass rush win rate and pressure rate of his career. The 64 total pressures is tied with Matthew Judon of the Patriots, and is well above his big money earning pass rushers such as Yannick Ngakoue and Preston Smith. Autry also has the fewest negatively graded run plays in a season since his rookie year in 2014, per PFF.
- One of the bigger defensive signings this past offseason that occurred “under the radar” of the national media was the Bengals 4-year, $60M deal with the former Saints pass rusher Trey Hendrickson. With everyone discussing the signings of Ngakoue and Bud Dupree, the Hendrickson signing largely went unnoticed. Going into the offseason, Hendrickson was coming off by far the best season of his career in which he finished with 14.5 sacks, and 56 total pressures. It has been said to be wary of players coming off their best season in a contract year, but Hendrickson has followed it up in 2021 with an even better season. He has the league’s second highest pressure rate from a DL (18.7%), with 86 total pressures (3rd in NFL behind Maxx Crosby and Aaron Donald). We have said previously that pressure rate equates more to success than sacks, but Hendrickson has both. He is tied for 3rd in the NFL in total sacks (16.0) and sandwiched between Robert Quinn, TJ Watt, Myles Garrett and Nick Bosa. This is with Watt and Garrett getting paid at least $10M more than Hendrickson on average over their contract length. He has helped propel the Bengals defense to 41 sacks on the season after having a league worst 17 last season. On Sunday, he became the first player in NFL history to record at least a half sack in 12 straight games in a single season.
The Over-Covered Misses
- The Cardinals signed veteran defensive lineman JJ Watt this offseason to a 2-year, $28M contract with $12M signing bonus and $20M guaranteed at signing. This equates to a 2021 yearly cash hit of $14.5M. One of the lessons that I’ve learned is that you must pay a player for what they will do, not what they have done. Watt is an aging, declining player who has lost his speed in pass rush. He has dealt with a multitude of long-term injuries just since 2019. He had a knee strain and pectoral tear in 2019. His deal has shown thus far that he is getting paid based on past production and locker room value. In 2019, Watt had 68 total pressures and followed it up with a 2020 campaign in which he only had 50 despite having close to 200 more pass rush snaps. His pass rush win rate dipped from 23.4% (2019) to 13.1% (2020). His pressure rate drop across that timeline was even worse (17.1% to 8.6%). His speed to power rush has been diminishing since his 2018 season, and with the injuries that have occurred since, it is reasonable to expect, he will never regain his dominant form. Watt will now be coming into the 2022 season off of another torn bicep as well as a labrum and rotator cuff, all of which could be debilitating to his strongest trait left: his strength.
- Julio Jones was one of the most transcendent players at the WR position as an impressively built, fast, athletic prototype. Jones had a HOF career with the Falcons and was paid handsomely for it. As things went awry in Atlanta, the star WR became frustrated and looked for a change of scenery. In June of this past year, the Titans traded a 2023 second round pick and a 2023 3rd round pick for the WR and a 2023 6th round pick. The Titans wanted to pair the WR up across from the budding star in AJ Brown to form a dynamic duo with Derrick Henry in the backfield. Jones carried a 2021 cash charge of $15.3M. Unlike many others on this list, Jones did not miss a major percentage of games in the recent past. He played in 15 games in 2019 and 9 games in 2020, but was an extremely banged up player declining in his skill set. He has missed significant amounts of practice with a rash of injuries, including a foot injury, AC joint problems and a lingering hamstring strain. Jones has played on only 57% of snaps this season for the Titans, with the lowest output of receptions (26) and yards per route run (1.74) in his career.
- The former Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson left his longtime team to join the Vikings this past offseason and received a 1-year, $8M contract. Peterson was joining a porous Vikings secondary that gave up 8th most passing yards and the 3rd most net yards per pass attempt in 2020. Peterson’s quality of play has been diminishing since 2019. He is approaching the end of his 11th season as a pro, and he might not have an INT for the first time in his career. Peterson was a lock down, playmaking CB at his prime, but going into the 2021 offseason he was coming off by far his worst two seasons allowing the highest completion percentage of his career, and two of his worst seasons in percentage of 15+ yard throws allowed. The veteran has even faced injury for the second time in his career, missing 5 games for the Vikings with a hamstring injury.
- While nothing has seemingly gone the way of the Giants so far this season, one of their moves in the offseason has particularly made matters worse. The Giants and Golladay reached an agreement this offseason for a 4-year, $72M contract with $28M guaranteed at signing and $40M of total guarantees. Coming off a major injury in 2020, Golladay has played in the majority of games (13), but has been extremely ineffective. He only has 14 more receptions than in 2020 despite playing in 8 more games. He has only had one game with over 100 receiving yards or 5+ receptions. While the QB play has been tumultuous in NY, Golladay has been unable to separate, made evident by his NFL-low 1.7 yards of average separation and the league’s 3rd worst catch rate. To be fair, fellow Giant Darius Slayton has the league’s worst catch rate. Golladay made his money in contested catch situations thus far in his career, and has seen his worst contested catch rate (on catchable targets) of his career, down over 30% from 2020. The investment in Golladay has not paid off for the Giants so far, and they are paying him the 6th-most average annual value of any player at his position.