NFL free agency is never as simple for teams as adding a final missing piece or two.
Without fail, the spending sprees in March produce hyperbole about how the big-name additions can swing teams’ fortunes. Yet in many cases, one offseason’s big splash can become next year’s dead weight (see: the Jacksonville Jaguars locking in quarterback Nick Foles to a four-year, $88 million pact last March). And though salary cap concerns can be somewhat of a bogeyman given the various avenues that front offices have for maneuvering, as well as the potential flexibility afforded by the collective bargaining agreement currently being weighed by players, the wrong long-term deal still can severely hinder a franchise for quite a while.
Of course, some free agents give off more troublesome warning signs than others do. As we await teams’ franchise tag designations, here’s our look at 10 potential free agents who could be overpriced in the coming weeks.
Arik Armstead, DE, San Francisco 49ers: Unlike several other free agent defensive ends, Armstead isn’t an all-or-nothing pass rusher. At 6-7 and 290 pounds, the No. 17 overall pick in 2015 has been stout against the run and capable of pushing the pocket even when he doesn’t reach the quarterback. But the deal Armstead signs this offseason seems bound to be tied to 2019’s 10 sacks, which were more than double his total for the previous four years and might have been inflated by offenses focusing on new arrivals Nick Bosa and Dee Ford. If Armstead doesn’t receive the franchise tag from the 49ers and ends up signing a contract somewhere in the neighborhood of what Trey Flowers received from the Detroit Lions last year (five years, $90 million with $50 million guaranteed), it would be an exorbitant price for a defensive end who might struggle to consistently tally double-digit sacks again.
Shaquil Barrett, OLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: By any measure, Barrett’s emergence from free agency afterthought last spring to NFL sack leader with 19 1/2 was one of last season’s most surprising developments. Yet Barrett’s breakout in his first full year as a starter wasn’t merely a stroke of luck, as his 51 pressures, per Pro Football Reference, ranked fourth among all defenders and reflected a penchant for beating opposing offensive linemen. Still, the 27-year-old has to prove his performance won’t taper off now that he’s a known entity who will be studied and planned for like any top pass rusher. Barrett and coach Bruce Arians have struck an optimistic tone about reaching an agreement, but the Buccaneers also have to invest elsewhere on defense.
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Bud Dupree, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Beware the contract-year breakout player. Since arriving in the league as the No. 22 pick in 2015, Dupree has had the speed to whip past offensive tackles, but his production was lagging until 2019, when he recorded 11 1/2 sacks. But his pressure rate of 10.1%, per Pro Football Focus, put him 70th among edge rushers and was no better than that of his previous two years. Though the Steelers have stated their intent to retain Dupree, Pittsburgh shouldn’t pay a premium in a long-term deal for what could end up being an aberration in sack production.
Dante Fowler Jr., OLB, Los Angeles Rams: Playing on a one-year deal worth $12 million after being traded to the Rams midway through the previous season, Fowler last year finally delivered some of what had been expected of him ever since he became the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft. Consistency, however, still eludes him, as 7 1/2 of his 11 1/2 sacks in 2019 were made in three games. For a player who could command a long-term contract above the rate he was paid on his prove-it deal, Fowler isn’t a reliable catalyst for a defense as he often simply finished plays initiated by defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans: At 6-3 and 247 pounds, Henry has been a running back without comparison since his high school days. That uniqueness was reinforced by his role in the Titans’ run to the AFC Championship Game this January, as his 446 rushing yards broke the NFL record for the most during a single playoff run (not including the Super Bowl). But amid several of his peers’ recent deals that quickly proved to be problematic for teams, how much can any organization afford to pay a star running back in a league where frequent and efficient passing still creates the greatest offensive advantage? Henry is no doubt important to Tennessee’s current offensive setup, but it’s hard to calculate how valuable he would be on the market given that he’s not a fit for every scheme. And more than most players on the market, the four-year veteran carries a substantial risk in any long-term deal given the workload he already has endured and would need to continue shouldering to be an elite back.
Austin Hooper, TE, Atlanta Falcons: Some of free agency’s most puzzling deals can be traced back to reliable but unremarkable players reaping the rewards of a field short on true difference makers. That could be the case with Hooper, who might be poised to reset the tight end market despite falling short of George Kittle and Travis Kelce’s class and benefitting from the attention opposing defenses gave to Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Hooper could still be an adequate option for a team with an established No. 1 target, but it’s hard to reconcile giving more than $10 million per year to a pass catcher who has averaged just 43.8 yards per game and 10.1 yards per catch in the last three years.
Matthew Judon, OLB, Baltimore Ravens: Don’t immediately peg Judon as the next Za’Darius Smith, the former Ravens pass rusher who raised eyebrows when he signed a four-year, $66 million with the Green Bay Packers but went on to rack up 13 1/2 sacks in a Pro Bowl campaign. Yes, Judon is only 27 and coming off a year in which he tallied 9 1/2 sacks, as well as 33 quarterback hits (ranking fourth among all defenders). All of his sacks, however, were secured on blitzes, according to ESPN, and he’s not on the level of Smith and other highly paid pass rushers. Retaining him via the franchise tag makes sense, but Baltimore should be wary of giving him a long-term deal with approximately $16 million average annual value, which is the going rate for top players at his position.
Jordan Phillips, DT, Buffalo Bills: With many NFL quarterbacks operating in quick-trigger attacks, generating interior pressure has become a focal point for defenses looking to throw passers off their rhythm. But even after notching 9 1/2 sacks last year, the 6-6, 341-pound Phillips is a long way off from the Kansas City Chiefs’ Chris Jones and other top defensive tackles, especially when it comes to creating disruption. Replicating and improving upon 2019’s output will be a challenge unless the 27-year-old takes a significant step forward in utilizing his physical tools to become more consistent in his pass rush and more formidable against the run.
Ryan Tannehill, QB, Titans: For as much intrigue as the potential crop of quarterback free agents has created, there might not be a one-size-fits-all answer — and that’s including Tom Brady. And while Jameis Winston and Teddy Bridgewater each carry questions on how they would fit in new surroundings, Tannehill is the veteran passer whose outlook might be the murkiest. Recreating the nearly ideal circumstances in which the veteran was able to revive his career likely will prove difficult, making any multi-year deal entailing significant guaranteed money a gamble. Ultimately, whatever team signs Tannehill will have to field an offense that can stay on schedule and heavily utilize play-action, which are crutches not typical for a player of someone at his expected pay level.
Leonard Williams, DE, New York Giants: When a player has already cycled through two teams during his rookie contract, finding a substantial market in free agency can be a challenge. That might not be the case for Williams, who still should have several bidders if the Giants decide not to keep the No. 6 overall pick in 2015 from hitting the open market after acquiring him in a midseason trade. Maybe Dave Gettleman decides to double-down on Williams via a long-term contract, but scrutiny would follow given that the five-year veteran recorded just a 1/2 sack and one tackle for loss in 2019. While sacks don’t tell the full story for any defensive lineman, especially one in a 3-4 scheme, Williams has typically been strong against the run but middling at best as a pass rusher — hardly the description of a prized player in today’s NFL.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.