The NFL free agency deals that eventually proved to be the best frequently receive little initial fanfare.
While the marquee names and big-ticket contracts will command the bulk of the attention through the spring, their appeal will often fade as the reality of their true cost sets in. But with teams having to fit all their pieces into the salary-cap puzzle, significant spending sprees can only deliver so much return when they pan out — and they frequently don’t.
A rightly placed low-cost investment, however, can pay significant dividends. Last year, for example, the Buccaneers signed Shaquil Barrett to a one-year deal worth $5 million, and the outside linebacker became the NFL’s sack king with 19 1/2.
While Barrett is clearly an exceptional case, there still were several players available in free agency this year capable of outperforming the contracts they reached. Here are seven of the best value signings in 2020 (with all contract details courtesy of overthecap.com).
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Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Panthers
Contract: Three years, $63 million
With a rare surplus of veteran quarterbacks on the market, Carolina might have secured the passer best suited to take on the difficult task of succeeding Cam Newton in Matt Rhule’s rebuild. Bridgewater, 27, returns to a starting role for the first time in five years after a knee injury derailed his career in Minnesota. He showed plenty of promise, however, as the Saints’ fill-in for Drew Brees for five games in 2019. With Panthers offensive coordinator and former LSU wunderkind Joe Brady deploying a scheme centered on concepts derived from his time as an assistant in New Orleans, Bridgewater seems ready-made to be the team’s new pilot. His quick-trigger style should mesh well with All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey and young wide receivers DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel, all dangerous with the ball in space. And in locking up Bridgewater on a three-year deal at a moderate rate for a starter, Carolina solidified its short-term outlook without restricting its flexibility down the road.
Bryan Bulaga, OT, Chargers
Contract: Three years, $30 million
Something is amiss when unproven entities like Halapoulivaati Vaitai (five years, $45 million to the Lions) and George Fant (three years, $27.3 million) are reaching contracts comparable to the one signed by Bulaga, a reliable starter. Though the former Packers staple turned 31 last week and plays on the right side, players with his pass-protection skills are in short supply. So long as he stays healthy, he should play an integral role in the refurbishment of a Chargers offensive line long overdue for an infusion of talent.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Cowboys
Contract: One year, $4 million
Losing four defensive starters in free agency is a little bit more tolerable for Dallas when the attrition is partially offset by the bargain-bin deal Clinton-Dix reached. Now set to play for his fourth team since 2018, the former first-round pick hasn’t been able to find his proper fit. That might change in his reunion with Mike McCarthy, who coached Clinton-Dix for four and a half years in Green Bay and could count on the five-year veteran to aid the team’s transition to a new regime. At the very least, Clinton-Dix provides a Dallas defense that struggled to generate interceptions with someone who can make plays on the ball and help cut down on long completions.
Eric Ebron, TE, Steelers
Contract: Two years, $12 million
It should be clear by now that Ebron’s 13 touchdowns on 66 receptions in 2018 constitute an outlier figure not likely to be replicated. Still, at 26, he has plenty left to offer as a big-bodied target who can create problems for defenses when utilized on the outside or in the slot. In Pittsburgh, Ebron will be a relatively low-cost, high-upside challenger to Vance McDonald for an offense that needs more production from this position. And the Steelers’ patience paid off, as they didn’t end up jumping for a deal like the one the Bears gave to 33-year-old Jimmy Graham (two years, $16 million).
Cory Littleton, LB, Raiders
Contract: Three years, $35.25 million
Credit GM Mike Mayock for arriving in Las Vegas with a level of restraint atypical for Sin City. Yes, the Raiders were aggressive from the outset of free agency, but they primarily pursued short-term deals in sensible spots. The biggest splash came via Littleton’s deal, which didn’t entail the kind of premium one might expect from one of the top players at his position. And while allotting a substantial sum for an off-ball linebacker can be a dangerous proposition, the former Rams standout will be paid at a level barely higher than fellow free agents Joe Schobert (five years, $53.75 million to the Jaguars) and Blake Martinez (three years, $30.75 million) despite being a significantly superior option to both. For a Raiders defense poised to benefit greatly from a coverage stalwart in the middle of the unit, Littleton was a shrewd addition.
Gerald McCoy, DT, Cowboys
Contract: Three years, $18.3 million
Replacing a burgeoning young player with a veteran past his peak can be dangerous, but signing McCoy could be a fruitful move for the Cowboys after Maliek Collins bolted for the Raiders. Though the 32-year-old might never fully replicate the top form he reached as a five-time Pro Bowl selection with the Buccaneers, he still can be one of the most disruptive interior presences in the NFL. And he carries a clear edge to prove himself once again, as he said he wasn’t used to his liking in the Panthers’ rotation of defensive linemen last year. The Cowboys are intent on winning now, and McCoy can provide a boost in the short term.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Saints
Contract: Two years, $16 million
What does the team that has almost everything get itself in free agency? After re-signing Brees, the Saints had few glaring needs this offseason beyond bringing on a wide receiver to ease the burden on All-Pro Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara in the aerial attack. Enter Sanders, whose sure-handedness and ability to rack up yards after the catch perfectly align with the demands of Brees’ attack. And though the Saints could have used their top pick on a pass catcher, the 33-year-old — now trying to become the first player ever to play in the Super Bowl with four different franchises — proved during his half-season with the 49ers he can acclimate to a contender in short order. Not bad for $8 million per year.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.