Best signings of 2020 NFL free agency: Barnwell's nine top grades, with Brady, Brees and Rivers

ByBill Barnwell ESPN logo
Saturday, March 28, 2020

Most deals signed in NFL free agency turn out to be disappointing. Teams pay players expecting the best seasons from their past, but it rarely works out that way. As a result, most of my grades tend to be a C+ or below. Call me a tough grader, but ask the Jets how their massive free-agent haul from last offseason turned out.

Of the more than100 grades I've handed outfor free agents this offseason, just nine earned a grade of B+ or better. Here are my favorite free-agent signings so far:

Tom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The deal:Two years, $50 million

Grade: A

For two decades, Bill Belichick has put the New England Patriots ahead of any single player on the roster. Virtually every veteran who contributed to the greatest dynasty in modern sports has been shipped out or allowed to leave once he was no longer useful or willing to contribute at the right price. Mike Vrabel was traded to the Chiefs. Randy Moss was shipped to the Vikings. Vince Wilfork finished up with the Texans. Adam Vinatieri had a whole second career with the Colts.

If there were to be one exception to that rule, I always figured it would be star quarterbackTom Brady. Nobody ever referred to the Patriots dynasty as Belichick and Vinatieri or Belichick and McDaniels. Belichick and Brady were equals as (arguably) the best head coach and quarterback of all time. They were the two pillars of the Patriots dynasty, the two centerpieces everyone counted out before they came together for a legendary run in New England. The six championships the Patriots won belong equally to both of them.

Last week, it became clear that the rules weren't different after all. After years of being lauded for taking less than market value to help the Patriots win, in August 2019, Brady decided it was time for a raise. The Patriots boosted his compensation from $15 million to $23 million and lowered his cap hit by $5.5 million. In the process, Brady got the Patriots to agree that they wouldn't franchise him in 2020.

The threat of the franchise tag would have limited Brady's leverage and likely led the Patriots to keep the best player in team history for at least one more season. Instead, when the two sides started to negotiate an extension, it appears that Belichick got that familiar feeling. Brady had an offer of $30 million per season on the table, and by all accounts, the Patriots weren't willing to compete. This moment was always going to come if Brady didn't retire after a Super Bowl victory, but when it did, I figured Belichick or Brady would blink. In the end, neither did.

Now, Brady is a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a combination that would have seemed impossible even a few months ago. There will be a time to discuss Brady's legacy, how it is impacted by the move and how the Patriots will account for his absence. This is about Brady's new opportunity and what comes next for the new pairing of Brady and Bruce Arians.

Was Brady foolish to pick the Buccaneers? Should Tampa have gone for one of the other quarterbacks? Can he be competitive with his new team and even compete for a Super Bowl? Let's run through what we know about this new marriage and get a sense of what to expect for Brady in Florida.

Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints

The deal: Two years, $50 million

Grade: A-

I'm admittedly not always the easiest grader, but it's hard to find much wrong with bringing back a Hall of Fame quarterback on a below-market deal. This is more likely to be a one-year commitment with a voidable year to help create short-term cap space, which is just fine when you're making space for a franchise quarterback.

Brees didn't let his slow end to 2018 carry over and was excellent yet again in 2019. There's always going to be a chance that the 41-year-old will drop off in a way similar to how Tom Brady did in 2019, but the Saints rightfully are going to take another shot at a Super Bowl with Brees in the fold.

Brian Poole, CB, New York Jets

The deal: One year, $5 million

Grade: A-

Non-tendered by the Falcons last offseason, Poole responded by turning into something truly rare by 2019 standards: a bright spot for the Jets. With Poole serving as their primary slot corner, the Jets allowed a passer rating of 87.7 to wideouts who came out of the slot or out of a tight split, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the third-best mark in football. By comparison, they ranked 22nd in the league in passer rating on throws to receivers who were split out wide.

This is a deep draft class for competent cornerbacks (without many great ones available), but the logical entry point for Poole was going to be something close to the four-year, $36 million deal Justin Coleman signed with the Lions last season. Instead, I'm shocked that the 27-year-old Poole wasn't able to attract a significant multiyear offer. The cornerback market has been stagnant, but this is a great deal for the Jets, who get back one of the few positive contributors for another campaign on a modest deal.

Ndamukong Suh, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The deal: One year, $8 million

Grade: A-

Although Suh has seemed content to wander the league on a series of one-year deals since he left the Dolphins after the 2017 season, the Bucs saw enough from the five-time Pro Bowler last season to keep him around for another season. Suh didn't dominate as a pass-rusher, but his alliance with wildly underrated tackle Vita Vea was the biggest reason the Bucs improved from 31st in rush defense DVOA in 2018 to the league's top rush defense this past campaign.

Suh also brings an underrated asset to the table: availability. The 33-year-old has never missed a game due to injury and has appeared on the injury report only three times in 10 seasons. The Bucs can feel confident that Suh is going to show up and play about 875 defensive snaps at a high level, which is not the case for a majority of free-agent signings. Tampa still has about $16 million in cap room to play with and should continue to attract veterans who want to get one final run with Tom Brady.

Bryan Bulaga, OT, Los Angeles Chargers

The deal: Three years, $30 million

Grade: B+

The best case for Bulaga's indirect value has been observing what happens to Aaron Rodgers when Bulaga isn't on the field. In 2019, when the right tackle played 16 games for only the third time in 10 pro seasons, he missed most of two games and parts of six others. Unsurprisingly, Rodgers' numbers fell off: The quarterback's passer rating dropped from 96.6 with Bulaga on the field to 83.8 across 101 dropbacks without him. Rodgers' sack rate was actually worse with Bulaga on the field, but he went from averaging 7.2 yards per attempt with him on the field to just 5.8 yards per throw without him. Rodgers is no fool: When Bulaga wasn't protecting him, he got the ball out more quickly.

Those seven other pro seasons are the most plausible reason the Chargers might regret this deal. Bulaga has missed 45 games in his career, including all of 2013 because of a torn ACL. He has another 13 games in which he was active and in the lineup but failed to play more than 50% of the offensive snaps, often owing to injuries prematurely ending his night. Bulaga turns 31 next week, so it's tough to imagine him getting dramatically healthier over the course of this deal, though he has missed only two full games the past two seasons.

Even given those injury concerns, though, the Chargers have to be happy with this contract. George Fant got three years and $30 million from the Jets, and he barely has 16 games' worth of experience as an NFL lineman. This is an easy win for the Chargers and a major upgrade on what was a dismal right tackle situation for Anthony Lynn's team in 2019.

Eric Ebron, TE, Pittsburgh Steelers

The deal: Two years, $12 million

Grade: B+

Nobody can accuse the Steelers of ignoring the tight end position. After trading for Vance McDonald in 2017 and Nick Vannett last year, Pittsburgh is replacing the latter by handing Ebron a two-year deal. A healthy Ebron is an upgrade on both McDonald and Vannett as a receiver, so this is a nice under-the-radar move for Pittsburgh in a rare foray into free agency.

Steelers fans looking up Ebron's stat line from 2018 and eyeing those 13 touchdowns are too optimistic. That touchdown rate was out of line with both Ebron's history and the broader history of tight ends in football, given that he turned just 66 catches into 13 scores. The Colts made Ebron a focal point of their offense under Andrew Luck that year with 110 targets, but Ebron's numbers fell across the board last season. He disagreed with the organization about undergoing ankle surgery in December, which led to his departure this offseason.

A healthy Ebron gives the returning Ben Roethlisberger an upper-echelon athlete with a large catch radius. The Steelers can move Ebron all over the formation to try to create mismatches, which should allow them to leave McDonald in line when they work out of 12 personnel. Drops have been a problem for Ebron in the past, which might bring back ugly memories of Donte Moncrief's disastrous September with the Steelers. But if Ebron were consistently healthy and didn't have the occasional drop, he would be looking at Austin Hooper money.

This is a good risk/reward opportunity for the Steelers, and it's shocking that tight end-needy teams such as the Patriots didn't compete here.

Devin McCourty, S, New England Patriots

The deal: Two years, $23 million

Grade: B+

While there were rumors that one of the organizations stocked with former Patriots coaches and executives would make a run at McCourty, the presence of twin brother Jasonand coach Bill Belichick made it more likely that the 10-year veteran would return to his only professional home. The two-time Pro Bowler was one of the best safeties in football a year ago, picking off five passes for the first time since 2012 while allowing a passer rating of just 50.6 as the nearest defender in coverage. This is hardly top-of-the-market money for a safety, so while McCourty is likely to have most or all of this deal guaranteed up front, it's a logical win-win for both sides.

One other subtle thing about this deal is the structure. McCourty was New England's second-most-pressing free agent behind Tom Brady and the only other player the team was likely to consider signing to a deal north of $10 million per year. If the Pats were desperately concerned about their cap space, they would have given McCourty a longer deal with a big signing bonus to try to create short-term cap room. (Note: This deal was agreed to before Tom Brady signed with the Bucs.)

Philip Rivers, QB, Indianapolis Colts

The deal: One year, $25 million

Grade: B+

If Tom Bradyleaving the Patriots for Tampa Bay isn't weird enough, get ready for Rivers in silver and blue. I wondered whether the post-Brady Patriots might try to hijack Rivers' long-rumored move to the Colts, but the reunion between Rivers and former Chargers offensive coordinator Frank Reich just made too much sense for all parties involved. I'm a little surprised that this isn't more than a one-year pact, even if future years weren't guaranteed, but Indianapolis has the cap space to absorb a one-year deal and shouldn't have much trouble bringing Rivers back if things work out.

I'm optimistic that we'll see a better Rivers in 2020 than we did in 2019, in part because he is going from one of the league's worst offensive lines to what might arguably be one of its best. The Chargers ranked 19th in ESPN's pass block win rate metric last season, and even that was likely a product of Rivers' ability to read defenses and put his linemen in the right place. Anthony Lynn's offense was overcome by injuries up front, with veterans Russell Okung and Mike Pouncey missing a combined 21 games and never playing a snap together during the season. The Chargers had what was likely the worst tackle situation in football with Sam Tevi and Trent Scott in key roles.

The Colts ranked third in pass block win rate and did a solid job of protecting Jacoby Brissett, whose sack rate in his second run as Colts starter was nearly half of what it was the first time around. With steady, competent protection, expect Rivers to do a better job of protecting himself pre-snap and have fewer plays in which he gets blown up by a failed block attempt immediately afterward. Indy already brought back Anthony Castonzo, which should provide Rivers with one of the league's best left tackles on his blind side.

Rivers' interception rate spiked last season, but as I mentioned in my column about possible Brady replacements, a league-high seven of his 20 picks came in the final five minutes of games while his team was trailing. Those are moments when he typically had to try to put the ball into tight windows to try to make something happen. The previous season, playing on a Chargers team that often had leads in the final five minutes, Rivers threw just one pick in the final five minutes of games.

I'd also count on him playing better in front of fans who actually want to root for his team. With the Chargers forced to resort to silent counts in front of rabid fans who were cheering for the opposition in Carson, California, Rivers was 25th in passer rating at home in 2019. He was 13th in the same category on the road. In 2018, Rivers was ninth in passer rating at home and fourth on the road. I wouldn't usually put much stock in a two-year sample of home/road splits, but few teams have faced the sort of home-field disadvantage the Chargers were up against.

This move isn't without risk, of course. Rivers turns 39 in December, and you can't chalk all of his interceptions up to desperate decisions. The Chargers' offense wasn't moving the ball effectively early in games, which is why they were often trailing in the fourth quarter. It's hardly as if the Rivers-Reich partnership was a roaring success the first time around; Reich was fired after a 4-12 season in which the Chargers ranked 26th in points per game and 15th in offensive DVOA. The Colts also don't have the sort of weapons the Chargers had for Rivers and need to add at least one wide receiver to work alongside T.Y. Hilton and second-year wideout Parris Campbell.

Even given those concerns, Rivers was the best quarterback the Colts could have targeted in free agency. He should be an upgrade on Brissett. With the Jaguars rebuilding, the Titans likely to see some sort of regression from Ryan Tannehilland the Texans seemingly undergoing an existential crisis, the Colts are well-positioned to make a run at the division title if they can get their draft right.

Nickell Robey-Coleman, CB, Philadelphia Eagles

The deal: One year, $1 million

Grade: B+

Robey-Coleman is always going to be synonymous with that play against the Saints, but he has been an above-average slot cornerback in his time with the Bills and Rams. Los Angeles declined his option in order to create cap space, but at this price, I'm surprised the Rams weren't able to bring him back for another season.

This is an easy victory for the Eagles, who have upgraded two of their three cornerback slots by signing Robey-Coleman and trading for Darius Slay. The slot cornerback market seemed to take off in 2019, when guys such asBryce Callahan, Justin Colemanand Tavon Young were able to sign significant multiyear deals, but with Brian Poole and Robey-Coleman each taking a one-year deal for modest money, things appear to have swung in the other direction.

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