Analytics of free agency: Three good fits, three head-scratchers
With free agency (finally) in full swing, I took a look at all of the signings and trades — so far — through a lens of contextualized data blended with reported contract value. In order to rate each move, I considered the player’s past on-field resume, his new team’s current roster and coaching philosophy, and then compared these parameters and contract value to other players at the same position. After crunching all the data, I’ve identified three deals with the highest potential return on investment and three that are likely to be viewed as overpayment.
NOTE: Positional contract rankings below collected from Spotrac.
THREE GOOD FITS
1) Adrian Amos, S, Green Bay Packers
Landon Collins just reset the top of the safety market by inking a six-year, $84 million deal (containing $45 million in guarantees) with the Redskins. That averages out to $14 million per season. Amos signed with the Pack on a four-year, $37 million deal that pays him $21 million in the first two years. Amos’ $9.25 million average ranks ninth among safeties and represents $4.75 million in average annual savings when compared to Collins’ earnings. Last season, Amos was a key member of the Bears defense that yielded a league-low 17.7 points per game. Pro Football Focus credits Amos with allowing just 7.7 yards per reception (fourth-best among safeties in 2018). Now, the 2018 Bears’ defense was special on every level, which makes Amos’ individual stats less impressive without context. But using computer vision to project Amos’ new role in Green Bay, I substituted Amos for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix using the latter’s final two-and-a-half seasons with the Pack (he was traded midway through last season), overlaying similar routes and runs faced and identifying the space difference. Amos’ impact, when it comes to space and the assignments he is likely to be responsible for as a Packer, increases the efficiency of Green Bay’s defensive backs as a unit — and is especially helpful to the three young corners (Jaire Alexander, Kevin King and Josh Jackson). One place this might show up on a regular stat sheet? Passer rating allowed on first down, an area in which the Packers ranked 32nd in the NFL last season at 114.7. The Amos addition could also be a big help in two-minute defense, where Green Bay ranked 27th in points allowed in 2018. Not to mention, Amos’ presence should help boost the Pack’s interception total from just seven last fall (tied for 29th). Remember, the Bears led the NFL in this category with 27, nearly four times Green Bay’s total.
2) Jesse James, TE, Detroit Lions
James’ four-year, $25 million deal (with $11 million fully guaranteed) makes him just the 18th-highest-paid tight end in the league. The 6-foot-7, 261-pounder is only 24 years old, and his Steelers tenure showcased great strength at the point of attack as an in-line blocker. I measure this by tracking the percentage of in-line snaps where the blocker allowed a pressure or got pushed back by a defender. James falls into the best category, which means he only allowed a pressure or push-back on 15 percent or fewer of his career in-line snaps. James also caught 76.9 percent of his 2018 targets (30 of 39, ranking sixth among tight ends with at least 20 receptions) and averaged 14.1 yards per catch (also ranking sixth among TEs with at least 20 receptions). Given the departure of slot receiver Golden Tate and the fact that Detroit plays in a division with exceptional defensive pressure potential, Matthew Stafford and the Lions project to benefit more from James’ multiple uses than this reasonable contract suggests.
3) Nick Foles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Foles’ four-year, $88 million deal averages out to $22 million per season — 11th among quarterbacks. He falls just below Joe Flacco ($22.1 million) and right above Russell Wilson ($21.9 million). (This is fun trivia to me, and also reveals that Wilson deserves a raise … ranking 12th?!) It’s fair to assume the Jaguars have high expectations for Foles — in fact, a few of the opposing front office execs I spoke to went so far as to speculate that he’ll be expected to average more than 9 yards per attempt, with 25-30 TD passes and single-digit interceptions. Foles’ resume indicates that he has a good chance to be able to achieve these benchmarks. Quick passes are one area where he’s excelled during his NFL career. Last season, according to Next Gen Stats, Foles posted a 7:1 TD-to-INT ratio on throws occurring within 2.5 seconds of the snap. This helped him lead the league in passer rating against the blitz (132.2). It’s also worth noting that Jacksonville’s O-line health should be improved — Foles will especially benefit from Cam Robinson’s return at left tackle.
1) Ja’Wuan James, RT, Denver Broncos
The Broncos’ new right tackle signed a four-year, $51 million contract ($32 million guaranteed). This makes him the NFL’s highest-paid right tackle on a per-year basis ($12.75 million). Last year, as a member of the Dolphins, James allowed seven sacks — according to Pro Football Focus, that tied him for 53rd among 66 tackles who played at least 300 snaps. My computer-vision metrics show he got pushed back or allowed pressure at an overall rate that ranks below average. One specific example: On third-and-6-plus, the 2018 NFL average was 1.7 yards of push-back among right tackles — James averaged 2.2. Last season, the Broncos allowed 16 sacks on third-and-6-plus (tied for 24th). It’s worth noting that positional scarcity did drive up his contract value. However, weighing his monetary ranking against his known production is quite disconcerting.
2) Trent Brown, LT, Oakland Raiders
Another position where a scarcity of free-agent resources impacted market dynamics? Left tackle. Good news for Brown, who signed a four-year, $66 million contract (with $36.75 million fully guaranteed). Making an average of $16.5 million per year, he’s now the highest-paid offensive tackle in the NFL. As a member of the Patriots last season, Brown allowed 13 QB hits — third-most among all tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Consider that New England gave up just 67 QB hits total (third-fewest, according to PFF), and Brown’s issue is even more concerning. Offensive coaches around the league always talk to me about how Tom Brady and O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia make offensive linemen look better than they are, due to scheme and getting rid of the ball quickly. So I measured Brown’s push-back/pressures when the ball’s released in under 2.5 seconds and over 2.5 seconds. The good news is that Brown showed improvement over the past three seasons. The bad news? He ranks outside of the top half of left tackles in both categories over this time period. Derek Carr got rid of the ball almost as quickly as Brady last season, and the Raiders’ offensive game plan will likely utilize tempo. But still, paying someone the highest rate in the league at such a key position, while banking on continued improvement, seems risky.
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3) Cole Beasley, WR, Buffalo Bills
For a 5-8 slot receiver who turns 30 next month, $29 million over four years (with $14.4 million guaranteed) could be a bit too rich relative to projected output. Last season as a Cowboy, only 68 percent of Beasley’s third-down receptions netted first downs. This ranked 46th among 58 wide receivers with at least 20 third-down targets. His career highs in yards (833 in 2016) and touchdowns (five in 2015 and ’16) don’t exactly jump off the page, either. In 2018, the Bills only managed 174.6 passing yards per game (31st), while their leading receiver, Zay Jones, amassed just 652 yards. Beasley fills a need as a guy who can rack up higher-probability, short passes, and does improve second-year quarterback Josh Allen’s arsenal of options. However, at $7.25 million per year — which is 32nd among all receivers (not just slot) — expectations of Beasley seem a lot higher than his likely production will be.
Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.
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