As the curtain falls on the 2017 regular season, the time has come to look back on those free agent contracts that were handed all the way back in March.
We’ll be comparing the top five against Joe Hulbert’s Top 50 Free Agent list, and seeing who got the best value for money.
1) A.J. Bouye – CB – Jacksonville Jaguars – 5 Year, $67.5 million contract – RAF Top 50 Rank #15
I have to put Bouye number one. Crossing the AFC South from the Texans to the Jaguars, Bouye has been an essential part of this number one pass defense in the NFL. It’s not even as if the Jags were just about the best passing defense in the league – they were the gold standard by some distance. Finishing a full 360 yards better off than the Minnesota Vikings, the Jags held opposing quarterbacks to an average of 170 yards passing per game.
This, however, was not a spectacularly new trend. The Jags finished fifth in pass defense last year, as rookie Jalen Ramsey established himself as an outside presence. Heading into the offseason, the Jaguars front office was clearly eager to find him some friends in the secondary. Barry Church was signed, and then came this man A.J. Bouye.
The former Texans defensive back had enjoyed a breakout season in 2016, and seemed to command his price of $67.5 million over five years. Could Bouye deliver the play the Jaguars had paid for?
As you might expect by his ranking on this list, yes. And then some.
Bouye defended a career high 18 passes, and doubled his career number of interceptions, with six balls swallowed up by those premium hands. Opposite Ramsey, quarterbacks were kept frustrated by blanket coverage all season long. Todd Wash’s defensive scheme called Bouye into a good amount of zone and man coverage, and the former UCF Knight had no issues with dropping into either defensive responsibility.
There might be free agents who provided a bigger impact to their teams, but A.J. Bouye made an already very good pass defense the best we’ve seen in a very long time.
2) Calais Campbell – DE/DT – Jacksonville Jaguars – 4 Year, $60 million contract – RAF Top 50 Rank #5
Not bad, to have the two top free agents in this columnist’s mind on your defense. Any defensive coordinator worth his salt will tell you a good pass defense starts in the trenches, and that was the rationale behind the acquisition of Calais Campbell.
The former Arizona man had proven his worth over the last nine years, and as such almost no one was wondering whether he could bring the level of play that warranted his contract to Florida. $60 million might seem excessive for a 30 year old, but this isn’t your average 30 year old.
The defensive lineman caused havoc, eclipsing his previous high for sacks in a season. 14.5 sacks was good enough for second in the NFL, behind only previous Arizona teammate Chandler Jones. Opposing quarterbacks lived in almost constant fear of this veteran mauling a hapless guard out of the way, and feasting in the backfield.
3) Andrew Whitworth – LT – Los Angeles Rams – 3 Year, $33.75 million contract – RAF Top 50 Rank #10
Whitworth had long been touted as many people’s choice in “most underappreciated player in the league” discussions, throughout his career with the Cincinnati Bengals.
The LSU tackle had played 11 seasons in a Bengals uniform, and with the team seemingly heading into what was essentially a rebuild, saw fit to forgo re-signing in Ohio and try his hand elsewhere.
Settling on the golden sands of LA, Whitworth made an immediate impression for the Rams. In 2016 – Jeff Fisher’s final year as the Rams, and probably anyone’s Head Coach – the Rams offense was woefully inefficient. Holes could not be created for second year man Todd Gurley, and whether it was Case Keenum or Jared Goff back in the pocket, they weren’t staying upright for long.
The signing of Whitworth on a pricey contract may have raised a few eyebrows (given the fact he was 35 years of age), but if the All-Pro could fight off regression, he stood to lock down the left side of the offensive line, and open up the offensive playbook. And that he did.
The Rams finished 31st in passing offense in 2016, jumping 21 places to 10th in 2017. On the carpet, the Rams went from 31st in the rushing yards category as well to 8th. In addition, the Rams transitioned from putting up the least points a year ago (224) to the most points in 2017 (478).
You can assess the reasons for that in your time, be that the banishment of Jeff Fisher from California, the body switch of Jared Goff, or the arrival of a competent coaching staff. But I believe that more than anything else, you can attribute the turn around of the LA Rams to the signing of Andrew Whitworth more than anything else.
4) Tony Jefferson – S – Baltimore Ravens – 4 Year, $34 million contract – RAF Top 50 Rank #13
Tony Jefferson is a defensive whirlwind. As the box safety made the trip to Maryland from his old club in Arizona, fans of the Ravens trembled with excitement in anticipation of their new secondary, consisting of Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, former free agent signing Eric Weddle, rookie Marlon Humphrey, and Jefferson.
Indeed, the Ravens set the pace at the start of the season, furiously bottling up teams’ hopes of establishing a comfortable passing attack. Whilst injuries affected the secondary throughout the year, Jefferson started all 16 games and helped the unit finish tenth in pass defense.
As a tackler, Jefferson was sure in the tackle, making 56 stops, and assisting in 23 more.
The former Oklahoma Sooner forced a fumble and grabbed an interception on his way to cementing himself as a part of the furniture in an impressive Baltimore Ravens defense.
And here might be the most attractive part of signing Jefferson – the safety will start next season aged just 26. Time is on his side, then, as the star seeks Super Bowl glory.
5) Alshon Jeffery – WR – Philadelphia Eagles – 1 Year, $9.5 million – RAF Top 50 Rank #4
Jeffery was our top ranked player on the Top 50 board who didn’t end up being tagged by or signing with his original team, and his short but rich contract seemed to reflect that.
Keen for a physical, lengthy outside threat, the Eagles put their money on the table for the 6’4, 230 lbs Jeffery. The team had finished 24th in passing offense the previous year, and they were evidently very keen to surround Carson Wentz with some upgraded talent.
If the role of Alshon Jeffery in this offense was to use his frame on the perimeter to work his way into position to make tough catches, he filled his requirements. Nine touchdowns on 57 receptions is indicative of the way in which his role might be limited in terms of volume, but crucial in terms of points, as the former South Carolina Gamecock led the team in touchdown receptions.
Given his performance, the Eagles saw fit to extend the contract of Jeffery beyond the one year deal he initially signed to a 4 year, $52 million contract that he seems to have earned.