Amid a period of change in the NFL, the opening of free agency seemed to be as frenzied as ever.
One day after players ratified the new collective bargaining agreement, the league’s negotiating window opened — and several teams wasted no time in starting their spending sprees. The stretch will be remembered primarily for Tom Brady’s landmark decision to jump from the Patriots to the Buccaneers, but several other stars also sought out new destinations.
Of course, spending power doesn’t always translate to on-field improvement, and several of the richest deals eventually leave teams with buyer’s remorse. And though the ballooning of the salary cap in upcoming years can mitigate the effects of some missteps, a GM can still set his team back considerably by looking for quick fixes or overpaying the available options.
Though the ink is barely dry on some contracts, these 10 signings — all of players who did not re-up with their previous outfits — stand out as the most questionable decisions of this year’s early free agency run. (All salary figures are courtesy of overthecap.com.)
Randall Cobb, WR, Texans
Contract: Three years, $27 million
Houston’s offseason no doubt will be defined by the puzzling decision to trade three-time All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals, but Bill O’Brien might have compounded the problem by bringing on Cobb. The Texans paid handsomely for a player whose career was revived in part due to serving as a tertiary option and operating out of the slot. Cobb’s arrival also pushes aside a younger, cheaper option in Keke Coutee, and the wide receiver market otherwise was deflated by a strong and deep draft class of pass catchers. Investing in any of them would have been a far more sensible move than grabbing a pricy target who will turn 30 in August.
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George Fant, OT, Jets
Contract: Three years, $27.3 million
Gang Green’s offensive line makeover didn’t exactly go gangbusters. To be fair, top-tier options were never going to fall into GM Joe Douglas’ lap in his first turn at free agency. Still, it’s a massive leap of faith to leave the role of Sam Darnold’s blindside protector to Fant, a former college basketball player with limited experience beyond the Seahawks’ trial run of him as a starter in 2016. Even though the Jets could still select a tackle with their first-round pick — now very nearly a necessity — their costliest addition to the front did little to make the group noticeably better than it was last year.
Ereck Flowers, G, Dolphins
Contract: Three years, $30 million
A move to guard last year helped revive the NFL livelihood of Flowers, who was hurtling toward the dreaded first-round bust label after four years of struggles at left tackle for two different teams. Still, his career renaissance only brought him to the level of a middling-at-best starter. Miami had plenty of money to throw around and needed some stability on the offensive line. Yet Flowers’ contract seems to set the expectation that he’ll only get better, which is anything but a certainty given his body of work.
Jimmy Graham, TE, Bears
Contract: Two years, $16 million
Ryan Pace is out of patience. What other explanation is there for the Bears GM not only acquiring high-priced veteran quarterback Nick Foles via trade, but also signing a 33-year-old who becomes the oldest player on the roster? The impetus to assist floundering quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is clear, yet the rationale behind bringing on Graham is difficult to discern. Discarded by the Packers after two years, the former Saints standout hasn’t adapted his playing style not to be dependent on his bygone elite athleticism. For some reason, that didn’t seem to deter Pace, who forked over a lot of money when better, more affordable options were available.
Austin Hooper, TE, Browns
Contract: Four years, $42 million
It’s strange for the tight end market to be topped by a player who has averaged 43.8 yards per game and a mere 10.1 yards per catch in the last three years. That Cleveland paid so much for Hooper to be its third option behind Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry was even odder. Hooper was plenty productive in Atlanta, but he hasn’t been a target for whom defenses have to bend their game plan. Unless Hooper becomes a leading figure in getting quarterback Baker Mayfield back on track, this contract will be hard to justify.
Blake Martinez, LB, Giants
Contract: Three years, $30.75 million
Witness the peril of having an abundance of money and a shortage of players worthy of it. GM Dave Gettleman was insistent on remaking his defense and brought on several new starters, including Martinez, a tackling machine for the Packers. But is the four-year veteran actually a transformative figure? His vulnerability in coverage and speed limitations when forced to operate in space suggest otherwise. The Giants likely would have been better off addressing this spot in the draft.
Jordan Phillips, DT, Cardinals
Contract: Three years, $30 million
When any group performs better than the sum of its parts, it’s probably not a wise idea to pay a premium for one of those parts. Inconsistent at creating pressure, Phillips assuredly owes a significant portion of his 9 1/2 sacks in 2019 to a formidable Bills defense that created many favorable situations for him to clean up. And in a division with the run-heavy 49ers and Seahawks, the Cardinals could find themselves frustrated by the five-year veteran’s spotty work at the point of attack.
Joe Schobert, LB, Jaguars
Contract: Five years, $53.75 million
Similar to the Giants, the Jaguars made a baffling move to pay a sizable amount for an inside linebacker despite being in the rebuilding stage. Pulling off such a deal amid a cap crunch that prompted the casting off of cornerback A.J. Bouye and cornerstone defensive end Calais Campbell only amplified questions about Jacksonville’s approach. Schobert might have been able to firm up a unit that was stable at other positions, but there’s only so much his coverage skills will do for a defense in disrepair. Given the state of the secondary and several other spots, his signing was perhaps this year’s biggest example of a team indulging in a free agency extravagance.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai, OT, Lions
Contract: Five years, $45 million
After discarding right tackle Rick Wagner, Detroit moved quickly to secure Vaitai. The difference between the two might be negligible, however, and there’s a substantial risk in projecting the former Eagles swing tackle to a full-time starting role. Vaitai has often been afforded help in pass protection, and the Lions might have to continue that to keep quarterback Matthew Stafford out of harm’s way. Ultimately, this may go down as the deal emblematic of a Detroit offseason high on activity but low on achievement.
Trae Waynes, CB, Bengals
Contract: Three years, $42 million
Count this as a rare leap of faith for the typically stingy Bengals, as Waynes’ $14 million average annual salary places him as the fifth highest-paid cornerback in the NFL. That standing is irreconcilable with the coverage breakdowns the former first-round pick was liable for throughout his time in Minnesota, including last year, when he gave up five touchdowns and allowed an opposing passer rating of 107.9 in coverage, according to Pro Football Reference. Maybe working as the No. 2 opposite William Jackson will suit Waynes’ strengths. But this deal could blow up in a way that would make owner Mike Brown think twice about spending big in free agency in the future.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.